The Cleveland Orchestra's concert performance of Salome at Carnegie Hall last night was in many ways splendid, and yet I came away mildly dissatisfied. I should confess at once that I was long ago diagnosed as a Salome nutcase; I began my book The Rest Is Noise with an extended description of the opera's 1906 Austrian premiere, and evaluated more than thirty Salome recordings for the Gramophone Collection. The perspective of the nutcase is not always the most useful; nonetheless, here it is.
Nina Stemme unquestionably possesses one of the supreme dramatic-soprano voices of the moment — perhaps the voice — and it was a thrill to hear her in a New York venue in a signature role. (She has sung Senta and Ariadne a few times at the Met.) She sailed through the part with a coolly gleaming tone that grew immense in the final scene. Friends report that they had trouble hearing her from upper balconies; I had no such trouble down in the orchestra. At the quietest dynamics she assumed the slender purity of a lyric voice. She easily mastered the role's sprawling range, delivering brilliant high Bs and making handsome mezzo-ish sounds around and below middle C. The infamous low G-flat on "Todes" was more stated than sung, yet it registered strongly. All the same, I found the portrayal too composed, too detached. There was little engagement with the deranged opulence of Wilde's imagery, with the fundamental transition from lust to murderous rage. Perhaps Stemme was made cautious by the awkward stage setup, which had the singers on risers behind the orchestra; the urge to focus mainly on the mechanics of her singing must have been strong, especially with so many opera mavens scrutinizing her.
Eric Owens made a magnificent first stab at Jochanaan, giving warmth and vigor to a character whom Strauss confessed to finding somewhat ridiculous. Rudolf Schasching was a standard-issue Herod of the ranting, hammy type, albeit one who went at his duties with considerable verve and wit. Once again, the opportunity to cast the role with a more flexible, lyric voice was missed. Jane Henschel was a cutting, funny Herodias, Garrett Sorenson an appealingly ardent Narraboth. The Cleveland played spectacularly all night, but Franz Welser-Möst, undeniably an idiomatic Strauss conductor, seemed in a peculiar rush. I kept wanting him to stop and savor the incomparable atmospherics of the score; the five-note dissonances that moan in the brass as Salome sings "Ah! ich habe deinen Mund geküsst" simply came and went, causing few shivers. A less helter-skelter pace might also have enabled Stemme to dig more deeply into her role. The ovation that erupted in the audience after the final blows suggested that almost everyone enjoyed the evening more than I did. Certainly, I don't doubt for a moment that Stemme is an astonishing vocal phenomenon.