Showing posts with label Salome. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Salome. Show all posts

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Salome, dear, not in the fridge"

Allison Cook as Salome, with placcy bag
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

As I slunk homewards from ENO's opening night, a friend on Twitter kindly sent me the above headline. It's from an anthology of winning entries to competitions in The New Statesman, edited by Arthur Marshall, and cheered me up somewhat.

Not that ENO's Salome would have needed to worry, because there wasn't much evidence of a severed head at all: just a placcy bag that for all we know might have contained a large cauliflower. One's cynical side considers it's probably cheaper than constructing a replica head of Jokanaan.

I love good reinterpretations of operas. Like science fiction or magical realism (in which I've been learning a thing or two recently), they need to create consistent worlds, to make sense within those worlds and, if stretching disbelief, make us believe one big thing by getting the small things right. The denouement has to be stunning, too, to make everyone feel they have suspended that disbelief for a good reason.

Under the circumstances, a radical feminist interpretation of Strauss's Salome should be eminently possible, especially with such a fine actress as Allison Cook in the title role. The story contains plenty of potential: a young woman, her sexuality awakened, frustrated, abused and finally twisted beyond redemption, is destroyed by men's attitudes to her - brutal religious fundamentalism on one hand and the incestuous lust of her stepfather on the other.

But if that was what was going on in Adena Jacobs' production, it didn't quite work. Herod is an almost pantomime Father Christmas - red and white cape over a gold vest and bare legs - bringing Salome jewels wrapped in big bright parcels with bows on. Jokanaan is first revealed wearing pink stilettos. There's a lot of pink, à la Anna Nicole, but including a decapitated pink horse, suspended upside-down spilling entrails that turn out to be pink and purple flowers. There's a lot of blood around, meanwhile, but it's pink too. In the midst of this, Salome is good at yoga, but leaves the heavy-duty moves to four lookalikes, also clad in black bikini bottoms and blonde wigs, who help out with the Dance of the Seven Veils. ("Twerking," my companion mused. "So 2013.") And there's a lot of sexuality, whether the self-pleasuring of the lookalikes, or what happens when the close-up live film projection of Jokanaan's mouth is turned on its side and begins to resemble something else, with teeth.

Some might object to all of this on principle; conversely, a lot of people seemed to enjoy it very much. I have no problem with the components (with the exception of the dead horse, which reminds me of Graham Vick's Glyndebourne Don Giovanni from last century and therefore seems derivative, and besides, I can't bear it when bad things happen to animals). But I'd like to know whether it really adds up to more than the sum of its, um, parts. I found no particular revelations within it and three days later I'm still musing over exactly what insights we were supposed to gain.

Strauss keeps right on being Strauss and sometimes all one could do was listen, because Martyn Brabbins was working such high-octane intensity with the ENO Orchestra that they swept all before them. The magical, lustrous scoring shone out, the pacing magnificently managed. David Soar's charismatic Jokanaan had his moments, but at other times the range sounded too high for him; Cook's Salome, too, offered a lower voice than suits the role's stratospheres. Supporting roles were all excellently sung. Michael Colvin as Herod gave a fine performance despite the Santa Claus coat, and Susan Bickley's Herodias - dignified and still at the centre of the whole - was perhaps the best of all the many ideas.

Go and see it for yourself, if you can. It's certainly a memorable evening.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Michael Volle: How to keep your head in opera

Even if his characters sometimes lose their heads, the powerhouse German baritone Michael Volle has no intention of imitating them. You'll find he has strong shoulders, feet firmly on the ground and a velvet-lined juggernaut of a voice. I was lucky enough to hear him sing Hans Sachs in Meistersinger at Bayreuth this summer, and this season he is back at the Royal Opera House to sing Guy de Montfort in Verdi's Les vêpres sicilienne and, later, Jokanaan in Strauss's Salome. My interview with him earlier this year originally appeared in the Royal Opera House Magazine and I'm rerunning it below with their kind permission.

Volle as Montfort in Les vêpres siciliennes
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Michael Volle is very proud of his head. The one in the cupboard, that is. “Since 2008 in each Salome performance here, my head is used,” he declares, “because I did the first run with David McVicar.” When Strauss’s searing masterpiece is revived at the Royal Opera House later this season, Volle can reclaim his model cranium: he returns as Jokanaan, aka St John the Baptist, whose decapitation is the febrile princess’s revenge for her failure to seduce him.

For the leonine German baritone, 57, Jokanaan offers a challenge through sheer intensity. “In Strauss’s big, big lines, everything must be perfect. And you must be a prophet,” he says. “I would never have been able in the early years to sing Jokanaan, or the big Wagner roles: you need the experience, you need the breadth, you need to have been on stage playing a very strange character. He is in his madness, he is confronted with this strange young lady and her demands and he loses his security. It’s not a long role, but a very strong: you stay like a rock, but then it takes your energy, the fight with the unknown planet of this young woman.”

Jokanaan, the Flying Dutchman, Hans Sachs, Wotan: the roles that Volle sings are often larger than life, each in its own way, and Volle himself is a gigantic personality, somewhat resembling an imposing yet genial German version of Jack Nicholson. His voice, with its vast capabilities in both quality and magnitude, reflects that strength of presence, yet can also be as meltingly beautiful as it is dramatic. Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Puccini could eat up all his time. Yet his lasting inspiration is something very different: Bach and Mozart.


The youngest of eight children of a priest, Volle grew up in Baden-Württemberg, near Stuttgart, steeped in first-rate church music. “In Stuttgart you could visit on one day six or seven church services with six or seven Bach cantatas, because it was part of religious life,” he recalls.

Because of that background, he insists, he cannot do without Mozart and Bach: “But the crazy thing is, nobody offers me Bach any more.” The expectation, he grumbles, is that a Wagner and Strauss voice cannot possibly suit those composers. “It’s ridiculous!” he expostulates. “I’m so fortunate that I did recently with the Akademie für Alte Musik in Berlin the three bass solo cantatas of Bach and we recorded them in concert. I do a lot of Bach because I need it. No Christmas time without a Christmas Oratorio; no Easter without a Passion.”

As for Mozart, he remarks with satisfaction that following a Wagner rescheduling last winter, he found he had the chance to sing one of his favourite roles, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, in Paris, with his wife, Gabriela Scherer, also in the cast as the First Lady. “What could be better than that?” he beams.

Perhaps having half a million Youtube views could run a close second? Last year Volle was invited by an ear, nose and throat specialist in Stuttgart to be filmed singing inside an MRI scanner, which duly captured astounding images of the physical mechanism of singing. The video went viral (see above). “I don’t do social media, so I knew nothing about it,” he says. “Then my wife told me I’d become an internet sensation.” Wasn’t that a little alarming? “I would not get a job from the way I sang in that video,” he laughs, “but it was fun.”

It’s often said that Volle has had a “slow burn” career, a phrase which also makes him laugh, but is not far off the mark. “Boys always develop more slowly than girls!” he quips. “I only started to study aged 25 and in 1990 I had my first opera contract. I was on fire, wondering why some other people got roles... But 27 years later, I’m very happy it took all that time, because I had the chance to develop and grow up. I believe somehow in a ‘plan’ for your life – fate, if you like. For me it was perfect, because I was never forced to do anything that could have killed my voice. I was able to grow with the right parts at the right time, and I’m very grateful for that.”

As Montfort, with Bryan Hymel as Henri
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Covent Garden audiences might be forgiven for thinking, though, that Volle specialises in characters whose fate is distinctly darker: not least, he is reprising the role of Guy de Montfort in the forthcoming revival of Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes. The opera begins with Montfort as a soldier raping a dancer, who then bears his child – the opera’s hero, Henri. Later, as governor of Sicily, Montfort longs for his grown-up son to accept him, but ultimately he, along with the French occupiers of the island, comes to a sticky end.


As Montfort
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Montfort might not seem the easiest character to identify with, but one vital element of the role was uppermost in Volle’s mind when Stefan Herheim’s production was premiered in 2013. “My fourth child was born in 2012,” he says, “so I was very involved in being a father. This is a central conflict in Vêpres, between Montfort the elder statesman and Montfort the father. He wants to be a good father and he meets his child, who rejects him: this big scene at the end of the first act is very intense.

“I am happy that for the past 20-25 years opera singers have had to be actors too,” Volle adds. It so happens that his brother is an actor: “He says often that if you feel close to a role, it must touch you in some inward way. This is the gift of being an acting singer, or a singing actor: you can try to be somebody else, something quite different from your private life you are paid for it, and you can sing!” Volle gives a giant bellow of laughter: “This is an incredible profession – I love it.”


This summer one summit of Volle’s repertoire approached in a special form: he sang Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Barrie Kosky’s new production for Bayreuth [our interview took place before this, in the spring]. “For me Sachs is the one and only role that is above everything,” he says. “The singing is so difficult – but it is so wonderful, because you have not only to sing five characters, but to act them too. Sachs is the wise man, the jealous man, the artist, the shoemaker, the mastersinger, and this is incredible.” He was looking forward to working with Barrie Kosky for the first time, too: “He has incredibly good ideas and I think we will have a great time.” [Author's note: looked good to me.]

And having a good time, he reflects,  is vital. “I am glad to be at a level now at which I can say no to offerings,” Volle reflects. “This can be the least family-friendly job in the world, because if you do an opera you are away for weeks at a time. Family is everything, so I do sometimes say no. Singing so important to me, it is a part of me, but it could be over tomorrow. Then what do you have?”

Les Vêpres siciliennes opens at the Royal Opera House on 12 October. Michael Volle sings Montfort, Bryan Hymel reprises the role of Henri, Malin Byström and later in the run Rachele Stanisci perform Hélène, Erwin Schrott sings Procida and Maurizio Benini conducts. Booking here.