Strauss - Salome

Salle Pleyel, Paris, Tuesday May 29 2007

Concert version

Conductor: Marc Albrecht. Salome: Janice Baird. Herod Antipas: Chris Merritt. Herodias: Anja Silja. Iochanaan: Alan Titus. Narraboth: Wookyung Kim. Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg.

Last night's Salome at the magnificently glamourised Salle Pleyel (what a sinister old hole it used to be) turned out, in the end, to be a very fine concert. I originally bought seats to hear Nina Stemme. She was replaced by Janice Baird, Alan Titus stepped in as John and Wookyung Kim took over from Rainer Trost (what was the matter with them all?). Also, I was warned (a) that Janice Baird, whom I actually also wanted to hear for the first time, had an edgy, wobbly voice and (b) that the Strasbourg band was capable of the worst horrors in Wagner and Strauss. I expected little of Chris Merritt after his recent catastrophic showing in La Juive, and wondered - much as I love her - how many notes Anja Silja would now have left.


First of all, Kim (new to me) turned out to be a superb Narraboth, quite likely better than Trost would have been. A clarion tenor with good phrasing. Alan Titus (I had vaguely bad memories of him but they were clearly unfounded) boomed out marvellously from the wings and sang a Wotan-like John once on stage.

Merritt was, amazingly, thinking back only to February, in excellent voice. Of course, it's a role in which a certain amount of barking and shouting and honking can be got away with, but he sang a great deal of it, making up for La Juive in spades - and making total sense of his devoted following, through thick and thin (i.e. La Juive), on the web, who never heard a wrong note. Anja Silja was, I think, in better voice than the last time I heard her as Herodias (in 2003) or more recently in Dialogues des Caramels: far more real notes. And of course she remains the supreme, charismatic singing actress, doing a marvellous job (in a sequinned harlequin coat and major jewels) of the desperate (but royal) housewife, despising her husband, with just a few impatient gestures, a turn of the head and a fabulous, mocking laugh - and making, with the wonderfully bumbling, hestitant Merritt, a great tragi-comic duo.

There's the rub, I think: Janice Baird was upstaged by these two extrordinary bêtes de scène with years of Salomes under their belts. I had seen, on the web, claims that she was a "new Gwyneth Jones," and that warning that her voice would be big, edgy and wobbly (from someone not at all a Jones fan) seemed to correspond. In fact, she is not. Her voice is big but not huge. In the woody Pleyel acoustics she was less edgy than suggested and the vibrato, I thought, was reasonable. In fact, a warm, round sound. All the necessary means were there (though her upper range projects a good deal better than the lower and she is more secure, of attack and tuning, singing loud than soft), but to me she seemed over-cautious, almost scholastic, as if walking on eggs: the role could have done with more vocal recklessness and (though she makes, no doubt about it, a good-looking princess: a sporty, American version of the more wounded-looking Anna-Caterina Antonacci) a more monstrous personality.

But it wasn't her fault if she had two monstres sacrés to contend with, and the wild reception she got had her in tears.

After those dire warnings, the orchestra turned out to be on sumptuous form. The overall sound brought out echos of the Alpine Symphony; plus there were some silky, diaphanous moments from the strings that reminded me of Ravel, and Pleyel highlighted the harps, percussion details (presumably because they were all at the back against the wooden wall) and celesta, which sometimes seemed to be at my left elbow. The horn section was a bit unruly - inevitably perhaps - and at times the wind band seemed to have some very quaint internal tuning, but otherwise it was a nice surprise. I felt sorry for the organist, having to sit there primly all evening, in full view, waiting for her two pedal notes and three chords. And it was a mystery to me why Albrecht was booed from the back of the house.

Some fool of a woman up on the top row of the seats behind the orchestra had brought her little daughter, whose fidgeting (slouching, lying down, turning to kneel on her seat, eventually needing to be jogged up and down on her mother's knees...) was a distraction (must have been maddening for the neighbours). During the 7 Veils the kid wove her arms around in the air in an improvised oriental dance, so I had to look well away to concentrate on the music. For concerts, as in museums, children should surely have to pay double...

However, apart from the maddening sprog, a highly satisfactory evening - again, just a pity our Salome was so careful - but this was, after all, an unplanned Paris debut in a major work…


  1. Well summed up - Baird does indeed have have the goods. And ban all kids from opera houses. Even more so when Strauss (and Salome) is at stake


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