Review: Lise Davidsen Achieves Strauss’s Ideal in ‘Salome’

Richard Strauss’s criteria for the ideal interpreter of his opera “Salome” have haunted the piece for the better part of a century: a “16-year-old princess with the voice of Isolde.”

As oxymorons go, it’s the operatic equivalent to Noam Chomsky’s famous syntactic puzzle “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Clear, simple, impossible. And yet here is the 37-year-old Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, in the middle of her role debut as Salome in Paris, launching her voice like a rocket that opens into a parachute in the cavern of the Opéra Bastille.

With a teenager’s sly mockery of her parents and a blooming sexual awakening, Davidsen’s young Judean princess, seen on Wednesday, gradually matured in color and volume. But when she reached the determined outburst of “Gib mir den Kopf des Jochanaan!” (“Give me the head of John the Baptist!”), her top voice detonated with a force that sent shock waves of youthful, shimmery sound reverberating equally in all directions. She stepped into her 16-year-old Isolde, and held the audience rapt for 20 more minutes of epiphanic sumptuousness.

I had never made the connection between Salome’s final scene and Isolde’s climactic Liebestod in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Usually, they don’t sound alike. Opera fans sometimes reach for Strauss’s one-liner to describe a soprano with some mix of the role’s beauty, lyricism, youth and power, but there is an implicit compromise, a sense that “this is as close as it gets.” As Davidsen unleashed huge arcs of exalting tone, though, her voice was soft and heavy like thickly piled velvet; she reveled in Salome’s obsessive love to music of apotheosizing grandeur and purified her desire of its murderous origins.

This revival of Lydia Steier’s disturbingly powerful production gave Davidsen a profound context to explore her interpretation. Steier’s militarized hellscape felt both primitive and postapocalyptic. Violent orgies, stripped of ritual, set the stage for gleeful sadism and recreational murder. King Herod (Gerhard Siegel, a seasoned Wagnerian with technical security and confident point) is styled as a depraved chieftain in black lace, soiled robes and a feathered headdress, and he presides over a ruling class that delights in bludgeoning and asphyxiating sex slaves. Their crimes are visible through a large glass window high above the stage. The Dance of the Seven Veils is a scene of rape. It would all be crass, it if weren’t for the craft of the staging’s detailed movement choreography.

The conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, committed unironically to the score’s intense, rhapsodic beauty. But he also, intriguingly, held back. Rather than lurch into sensationalistic dynamics and noxious fragrances, he led with composure. The opening clarinet snaked curiously up its bitonal scale. Jochanaan’s horns moved from wounded glory to defiant majesty. Romantic strings swooned as lurid woodwinds spread a penetrating perfume. Wigglesworth held these triangulated poles — dignity, romance, derangement — in an active balance that allowed them to coexist or overtake one another according to the drama.

Davidsen’s sensitively realized Salome evolved both vocally and dramatically throughout the opera’s uninterrupted hour and 45 minutes. Detached and dead behind the eyes, she quickly escaped Herod’s debaucheries at the start. Initially, her encounter with Jochanaan had timbral innocence, even purity, as she furrowed her brow like a stymied yet peaceable child rather than a dangerously petulant one. The tunnel vision of her royal entitlement, though, showed in the bloom of her top voice as she gave Jochanaan her name, hinting at the raptures to be born from her single-minded longing. The exchange, aesthetic, sensual and finally sexual, ended with Salome pleasuring herself atop his cistern, while Wigglesworth tapped into orchestral surges of desire.

Critics have quibbled about Davidsen’s underpowered low register, but you could hear her experimenting with different techniques, such as a pointed tone, chest voice and a guttural quality. A tiny, and entirely unnecessary, touch of effortfulness entered her voice in the final stretch.

Johan Reuter’s Jochanaan was robust and earthy, with a touch of tonal sourness, in his taunting revulsion toward Salome. Ekaterina Gubanova had a ball as a voluptuously matronly Herodias. The tenor Pavol Breslik was a hopeful Narraboth, and the bass Luke Stoker was an unusually moving First Nazarene with a mellow, comforting timbre.

Hearing Davidsen’s first attempt at Strauss’s Judean princess, some audience members will renew their clamoring for her to sing Wagner’s Irish one, Isolde. But they shouldn’t overlook what is right in front of them: a Salome as Strauss intended.


Through May 28 at the Opéra Bastille, Paris;

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