Richard Strauss liked to pretend that Salome was a woman of no importance. When the Dresden Court Opera began rehearsing for the premiere of the composer's Oscar Wilde provocation, in 1905, Strauss spoke a few reassuring words to the orchestra. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘there are no difficulties or problems. This is a scherzo with a fatal conclusion.’ After the dress rehearsal, Strauss turned to an audience dumbfounded by what it had just witnessed – Salome kissing the severed head of John the Baptist – and placidly remarked, ‘Well, I enjoyed that.’
Many have taken Strauss at his word, treating Salome as a gruesome middlebrow entertainment. For all its alien timbres, its chaotic prose rhythms, its Expressionist dissonances, its vertiginous aloofness from consistency of style, its virtuoso manipulation of expectations – in short, for all its colossal originality – Salome is still routinely filed away as kitsch. Yet few works of the fin de siècle exerted so broad an influence on the century that followed, from the writhing dissonances of Schoenberg's Erwartung to the neo-Romantic ironies of John Adams's Nixon in China. Accusations of vulgarity still shadow the piece; at the same time, the tinge of scandal makes it perpetually interesting. Salome will never become a mere museum object.
The princess of Judaea arrived late to the recording studio - the first complete traversal came in 1952 - but she has prospered since: there have been 13 studio efforts and around 20 live recordings. The title-role is a famously challenging proposition, to which few sopranos are ideally suited: the vocal range is enormous, going from brilliant high Bs to a dusky G below middle C, and the dramatic situation requires a true singing actress who can suggest plausible motives for an unspeakable act. As for the companion roles, they are too often cast in haste. The part of Herod is traditionally barked out by a Wagnerian character tenor, but it benefits from being actually sung. (The first Herod was the Heldentenor Karel Burian, who reportedly conveyed the part in ‘clear-cut’, ‘expressive’ style.) When the great sopranos go head to head, it may be Herod who tips the balance.
Among the first documents of Salome on disc are Emmy Destinn's crystalline renditions of two brief excerpts from 1907. These and other pioneering recordings indicate that in the early days the opera wasn't cast with such weighty, Wagnerian voices as it is today (neither was Wagner, for that matter). Especially interesting are two extended fragments captured live at the Vienna State Opera in 1942, with Strauss at the podium. Although the recordings are extremely rough, they give an inkling of how the composer wanted his opera to sound: highly atmospheric, incisive but also intimate, with the voices placed front and centre.
The leading Salome of the early post-war years was Ljuba Welitsch. A 1949 Metropolitan Opera broadcast with Fritz Reiner conducting shows the Bulgarian powerhouse at her short-lived peak – at once piercing and sensuous, able to tum on a dime from seductive lyricism to raw terror. Observe how she breaks down in sobs when Jochanaan refuses and curses her; one realises that adolescent hurt propels Salome's horrific deed. Reiner's orchestra plays with fire and finesse. You can hear the complete broadcast on a Guild issue, with a vibrant Gianni Schicchi to start: the Met devised odd bedfellows for Salome in this period, Pergolesi's La serva padrona being the oddest. A more distinguished cast fills out a Welitsch Salome from 1952 – Hans Hotter sings like a marble slab – but by then the soprano had already entered her vocal decline.
Welitsch had serious rivals. In 1947 the displaced Vienna State Opera travelled to Covent Garden for an illustrious guest run; Welitsch sang Salome to typical acclaim but at the last performance her place was taken by a very different artist, the tragically short-lived soprano Maria Cebotari, who was also singing Donna Anna and the Countess Almaviva. There's a precious off-the-air recording from that night, with Clemens Krauss conducting. Cebotari uses her fine-spun voice to suggest aristocratic breeding gone to seed; the high notes ring out effortlessly. But she is venomous when necessary, raising goose bumps in a chillingly radiant finale. Opposite her is Julius Patzak, a great singing actor who had no better as Herod; his pitch is true, his tone full, his diction deliciously crisp. Elisabeth Höngen makes for a spooky Herodias, speaking-singing almost in Lotte Lenya style. Krauss whips up an opulent storm of sound. Alas, the recording is poor, with much background noise and occasional distortion of pitch. Christel Goltz, another famous post-war Salome, made her mark less with beauty of tone than clarity of diction and force of expression. On a clean-sounding 1948 Dresden radio recording led by Joseph Keilberth, she proves an exceptionally lusty Salome, spluttering deliriously as she awaits the Baptist's head. Bernd Aldenhoff amuses as Herod; Josef Herrmann sounds a shade weak for Jochanaan; Keilberth is hasty but idiomatic. The singers had but one microphone, and it's fun to imagine the contortions they had to perform. Goltz returned for Clemens Krauss's Decca recording of 1954, the second studio version (the first was Rudolf Moralt's robust, intimately scaled Philips set of 1952, with Walburga Wegner in the lead; it appeared only briefly on CD). Goltz has superb support: Patzak reprises his bravura Herod, Hans Braun is a virile Jochanaan, and Krauss conducts with idiomatic swagger. But the soprano tires in the final scene, her voice sagging flat. Her last attempt came in 1963 – by then well past her prime, though still commanding. Otmar Suitner, conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle, obtains one of the most rhythmically precise Salomes in the catalogue.
Fans of the fiery-voiced soprano Inge Borkh will want to explore her three live recordings from the '50s. Of these, a 1958 Met performance under Dimitri Mitropoulos makes the most vivid impression. There's also Borkh's famous recording of the final scene with Fritz Reiner's Chicago Symphony – a Living Stereo masterpiece with a magnificently disturbing bass organ note for Salome's ‘secret music’. But my favourite of the '50s-era Salomes is Astrid Varnay's, as heard on a Bavarian Radio recording conducted by Hermann Weigert, the singer's husband. Few sopranos have seized the role with such security; the sustained G sharp at the beginning of the monologue could have sliced off the Baptist's head if he were not already decapitated. To sheer force Varnay adds considerable subtlety; her intelligence is obvious throughout. The sound is fine for its period, showing Patzak's Herod to good advantage.
SALOME IN THE STEREO ERA
Perhaps the most renowned studio Salome is John Culshaw's 1961 set for Decca, with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Birgit Nilsson taking the title-role. Would it be heretical to say that it lacks the authority of the Elektra from the same team? La Nilsson sounds uncharacteristically cautious in spots, as if traversing strange terrain. Gerhard Stolze, the Herod, exhibits comic flair in his early scenes and then devolves into rasping caricature. Although Solti builds sensational momentum - the ‘Five Jews’ sequence rolls like a juggernaut - his relentlessness becomes wearisome towards the end. I have more affection for Nilsson's 1965 live Buenos Aires recording, with another Hungarian expatriate, Georges Sebastian, on the podium. Now in full command of the part, she takes expressive risks and emerges triumphantly unscathed. Eberhard Wächter is similarly energised as Jochanaan (listen for his stentorian ‘Verflucht!’, accentuated by a stagey orchestral pause); Fritz UhI is a strong lyric Herod in title Patzak mould. The orchestra flirts with chaos but the performance crackles from start to finish.
For obvious reasons of dramatic plausibility, Montserrat Caballé seldom performed Salome live at the height of her career. ‘I did it many, many times before I was big,’ she commented merrily in an interview. Nevertheless, she remained fond of the role, and made a studio recording in 1968 with Erich Leinsdorf for RCA. You won't find a Salome better sung; the voice is silvery, seductive and refulgent throughout. Those seeking total diva delirium might wish to go elsewhere, but there's more to Salome than girls gone-wild. Richard Lewis, as Herod, echoes Caballé's emphasis on the lyrical over the hysterical; Sherrill Milnes lavishes beauty of tone and nobility of spirit on Jochanaan; Regina Resnik is a scorching Herodias. Arguably the weak link is Leinsdorf's conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra. It's a forceful, idiomatic performance, but to my ears it lacks colour, sensuousness, and mystery.
Those are exactly the qualities that distinguish Herbert von Karajan's 1977 EMI recording. Born to conduct Strauss, Karajan maximises Salome's lyric qualities while never suppressing its Expressionist power. No conductor more skilfully negotiates the opera's liquid changes of mood. The casting is pristine. The young Hildegard Behrens brings to bear a full, fresh, glowingly beautiful voice - her vocal problems lie in the future - and memorably details each stage of Salome's progression into madness. José van Dam invests the role of Jochanaan with ardour and poetry. And Karl Walter Böhm, a distinctive tenor who prospered briefly under Karajan's tutelage in the mid-'70s and then disappeared from view, fashions a fabulously decadent Herod, communicating both the melting charm of a golden-mouthed host (‘Salome, come drink wine with me’) and the savage rage of an impotent despot (‘She is a monster, your daughter’).
Karajan's was the only studio Salome to be made between 1970 and 1990. That vacuum meant that several notable sopranos were unable to document their readings under optimum conditions. One was Grace Bumbry, who lent Salome a lustrous, mezzo-ish tinge. An assiduous internet search may yield a fine 1978 recording from Chicago. Another was Leonie Rysanek, who conceived the part as an irreversible crescendo of neurosis and hysteria. Fortunately, Rysanek left two riveting live recordings. The first, from 1972, is heard to best advantage in RCA's Wiener Staatsoper Live series. It features another strong Jochanaan from Wächter and authoritative conducting by Karl Böhm. (Avoid Böhm's other recorded Salome, a live set from the Hamburg State Opera with an iffy Gwyneth Jones.) Rysanek raised the ante when she sang Salome at the 1974 Festival d'Orange with Rudolf Kempe in the pit. At times the voice threatens to fly out of control, but the singer's dire intensity and myriad imaginative strokes make one overlook intermittent stridencies of tone and errancies of pitch. Jon Vickers keeps pace with a manic, unquestionably regal Herod. Here is Salome at its most sublimely demented.
Teresa Stratas never sang Salome onstage but she assumed the part in Götz Friedrich's 1974 Unitel film of the opera, with Böhm leading the Vienna Philharmonic. Friedrich had the singers record their roles in the studio and then lip-sync them for the cameras – a questionable practice that yielded good results. Unable to attend the main sessions, Stratas overdubbed the entire part. It's a gripping vocal tum, seemingly influenced by Welitsch's embodiment of Salome as a broken-hearted adolescent; here, too, the Princess sobs uncontrollably when Jochanaan refuses her. Then, at the immortal Wildean line ‘The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death’ Stratas exudes a sinister calm: she begins with a beatific upward stare, then lowers her head and darkens her face at the prospect of death. Varnay, who created a wonderfully ghastly, cackling Herodias for the occasion, called Stratas's performance ‘a true document of what an intelligent singing actress can do in the full possession of remarkable gifts’.
THE YEAR OF FOUR SALOMES
With the advent of the CD, record companies rushed to put Salome under the microscope of digital sound: no fewer than four recordings were produced in 1990. All are worth hearing; none quite hits the mark. Giuseppe Sinopoli's set for DG is the classiest of the four. Cheryl Studer is a first-rate Salome, recalling the piercing lustre of Welitsch and the cultivated tone of Cebotari. Yet it seems to me more a technical tour de force than a fully inhabited portrayal. Bryn Terfel, in his recorded debut, towers as Jochanaan and Rysanek unleashes a fearsome Herodias, but Horst Hiestermann ploughs his way through Herod in bland, gruff fashion. Sinopoli's interpretation strikes me as enthusiastic but overwrought Strauss without the ironic detachment.
The main draw of Zubin Mehta's Sony recording is the Berlin Philharmonic. While the Vienna Philharmonic appear on at least eight Salomes, the Berliners have only this one, and they revel in Strauss's sound world: the glowering grandeur of the C sharp minor interlude that accompanies Jochanaan's descent into the cistern is nearly worth the price of admission. Eva Marton makes some ungainly sounds in the title-role but generates raw excitement in tile final scene. Heinz Zednik cooks up yet another rasping Herod; the great Brigitte Fassbaender cuts a glacial, masterly figure as Herodias. On Seiji Ozawa's Philips set, Jessye Norman sings the title role with a vocal finery that recalls Caballé, though of course the tonal quality is quite different; notable here is Norman's strength below middle C. Unfortunately, her natural-born stateliness creates a slightly absurd effect; I'm put in mind of a grande dame stepping gingerly through a swamp. Neither she nor Ozawa has the temperament to wallow in the depths.
Strauss spent most of the summer of 1905 making a French-language version of the opera, thoroughly revising the vocal lines to accommodate Wilde's original French text. Kent Nagano, while music director of the Opéra de Lyon, did Salome fanatics the favour of recording that alternative version for Virgin Classics. Indeed, ‘French’ qualities emerge in the music, especially when Herod and his Debussy-ish whole-tone scales sweep in. Of the cast, only Van Dam, as Jochanaan, and Jean Dupouy, a slinky, conniving Herod, make the most of the occasion. Karen Huffstodt lacks both power and allure as Salome, and the Opera de Lyon orchestra never catch fire under Nagano's direction. Let's hope that Salomé will have another chance to make its case.
To hear every note of the score in immaculate digital sound, consult Christoph von Dohnányi's 1994 Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. Strauss's timbres glow in clear focus – cor anglais blended with heckelphone, pointillistic splashes of harp or tam-tam. The downside is a lack of wildness. Catherine Malfitano is a flawed but potent Salome; while she may produce a few harsh sounds above the stave, she gives a distinctive spin to almost every line. The maturing Bryn Terfel creates a near-definitive Jochanaan, at once vocally splendid and fully human. Kenneth Riegel, as Herod, errs in the direction of camp but is enjoyable throughout. These singers also appear with Dohnanyi on a Decca DVD of Luc Bondy's Salome production, as mounted at Covent Garden, with Anja Silja adding a drunkenly statuesque Herodias. It's an appealingly austere, uncluttered vision of the opera, with Malfitano brooding rather than vamping. The soprano's fans will also want the DVD of her gloriously unrestrained 1990 performance at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
The most recent Salome is among the best: a Chandos set with Michael Schønwandt leading the Danish National Radio Symphony. No kitschy excess here: the opera emerges as an edgy, uneasy, modem-sounding work, its bleak comedy amplified. Inga Nielsen, who died in February  at the age of 61, fashions a Salome of warped, girlish innocence – a blank slate inscribed with the squalor of Herod's court. She shows unflagging energy in the monologue, with violent spite giving way to eerie tenderness. Reiner Goldberg, as Herod, is more understated than most, whispering lines that others shout. Schønwandt etches details while cannily building an atmosphere of dread.
Pronouncing a ‘best’ Salome is difficult, given that most listeners will have personal favourites among the singers. Welitsch holds pride of place in the historical live category, though Cebotari, Rysanek and Nilsson (1965) are close behind. Among studio Salomes, Varnay and Caballé deliver perhaps the most authoritative vocal turns. In the digital era, the Chandos set stands out for its interpretative intelligence. Teresa Stratas dominates the DVD market with her dangerous allure, although she would face serious competition if Karita Mattila's astounding portrayal were properly documented. But, in the end, I nominate Karajan's as the most devilishly sophisticated Salome of all.
THE HISTORIC CHOICE
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Geraldine Farrar said of this 1949 performance: "It is many moons since any of us have thrilled to such a masterful combination of singing and acting."
THE MODERN CHOICE
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Salome cleansed of camp: here the opera becomes a cool, dark, modernist creation. Nielsen reminds you, forcefully and disturbingly, that the central character is an irremediably damaged child.
THE TOP CHOICE
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It's no surprise that Herbert von Karajan's recording is powerfully sung and lushly played; what's more startling is mat it is so rich in irony and wit. He instinctively realises Strauss's conception of Salome as a pitch-black comedy.