'Brutality and beauty': Strauss's opera Salome at EIF

With its ravishing music and stomach-churning storyline, Strauss’s powerful one-acter offers an experience like no other opera. Susan Nickalls speaks to conductor Edward Gardner about bringing it from Bergen to Edinburgh

Operas that work best in concert are those where the music is very much front and centre and despite its gruesome subject matter, Richard Strauss’s Salome boasts some of the most ravishing music in the operatic repertoire. Based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, the opera tells the story of Salome who demands the head of the prophet Jochanaan in return for satisfying the desires of her stepfather Herodes.

Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) Edward Gardner, says he chose Salome for the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) because like the BPO’s successful concert performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes at the EIF five years ago, the orchestra is a larger-than-life character in this emotional rollercoaster ride.

“More than any other opera I know, this score has so many colours and extremes and in this extraordinarily intoxicating fantasy world the orchestra is a big protagonist. I think Salome is one of those pieces that exist as much away from a physicality as within it, because what you visualise can be far stronger than what you see on the stage. There’s a wide bandwidth for what you can do with operas in concert but I think it suits the piece to a have a physical stillness from the characters. I wanted to have everything projected through the text to bring the production side of the opera to life within the imaginations of the audience.”

I heard Gardner and the BPO deliver an electrifying account of Salome at the Bergen International Festival in June. They brilliantly captured the mercurial nature of the music with plenty of dramatic detail; from the ominous jangle of the tambourine during Salome’s famous Dance of the Seven Veils to the blood-curdling repeated high double bass notes just before Jochanaan is killed.

For the Edinburgh performance, Gardner is excited about the added level of intensity the channelled space of the Usher Hall will bring to the performance along with some changes to the singing line-up. The celebrated Swedish soprano Malin Byström takes the title role of Salome and is joined by Johan Reuter (Jochanaan), Gerhard Siegal (Herodes) and Katarina Dalayman (Herodias).

Gardner points out that all great singers alter the chemistry of the cast and he had to think carefully about who to choose for Edinburgh. “I loved our singers in Bergen and now we have this miraculous cast in Edinburgh headed by Malin who is one of the world’s greatest Salomes. Given that each singer will have a language of how they want to present themselves in their role, it’s important in rehearsals to have everyone in the room at the same time to talk about what we’re trying to achieve.”

As well as focusing in on the details of the music, Gardner has spent time in rehearsals building up the stamina of the players and the singers to get everyone through the opera’s lengthy duration. “It’s like training a sports team as it requires near-impossible feats from everyone, including me, to make sure that we’re all still fresh ten minutes from the end after playing and singing continuously for an hour and 45 minutes. But it’s thrilling when everyone buys into what the performance can be and you go on that journey together.”

Edward Gardner PIC: Benjamin EalovegaEdward Gardner PIC: Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner PIC: Benjamin Ealovega

And there are challenges in Salome for the audience too, adds Gardner. “Alongside the brutality of the story, there is great beauty and I’m looking forward to presenting this huge spectrum of orchestral colour to the audience in Edinburgh. There are so many things in the story that might chime with people now, such as the breakdown of civilisation. Strauss has written such an amazing opera, the music is almost inhuman, like something from another world. Everything happens in such a short space of time but by 8.45pm people will be going out into the world having had an experience that no other art form can give you.”

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra performs Salome at 7pm, 14 August, Usher Hall www.eif.co.uk

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