Richard Strauss' "Salome" is the opera for people who hate opera -- it's non-stop action, violence and lurid sex in a single 90-minute act. It's as scary and bloody as the best Brian DePalma movies and as kitschy as one by Cecil B. DeMille -- Salome's striptease leads to the beheading of John the Baptist. No wonder sopranos, conductors and record companies love it.
The latest entries in the "Salome" sweepstakes come from Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical. The former features Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting the orchestra of the German Opera of Berlin and a cast headed by the young American soprano, Cheryl Studer; the latter has Zubin Mehta conducting the Berlin Phiharmonic and a cast that stars Eva Marton in the title role. Both are worth owning, but the vote here is for the Mehta-Marton recording on Sony.
Mehta does not have a good reputation among connoisseurs; they view him as the podium equivalent of a Barry Manilow -- as a someone with a lot of musical flash and little substance. That may be the case (though I doubt it), but "Salome" demands a flashy approach and Mehta and the extraordinary Berlin Philharmonic supply it with abundance that surpasses even that of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic in their celebrated 30-year-old recording on London.
The huge climax that comes after Jokanaan (as Strauss' John the Baptist is called) rejects Salome's advances is a cataclysm, the Dance of the Seven Veils could not be more sensual and the end of the piece is tremendous: If your speakers do not experience meltdown, your angry neighbors may find you plastered against the walls of your living room. But Mehta's performance is more than vulgarly loud. He's an experienced opera conductor and his "Salome" sounds as coherently organized and as lucid as one of the shorter Strauss tone poems.
Next to this kind of conducting and orchestral playing, that of Sinopoli and his fine orchestra fade into insignificance. The Italian does certain scenes well and he is better able than Mehta to suggest the music's subtext -- that the gorgeous lyricism of Jokanaan's music and the Christian era that he heralds are essentially empty. But Sinopoli's point-making is no substitute for the grasp of the work that Mehta conveys and the cumulative mounting excitement he is able to create.
Mehta also has a slightly better cast. The composer himself described his heroine as a "16-year-old Princess with the voice of an Isolde" and went on to admit that such a singer was impossible to find. He must have changed his mind 40 years later when -- as an 80-year-old -- he conducted the opera with that great redheaded spitfire Ljuba Welitsch in the title role. But apart from Welitsch, no singer has ever been able to combine a voice that combines the perverted innocence that a Salome should have -- she must fondle and all but masturbate with Jokanaan's severed head -- with the vocal heft necessary to cut through Strauss' giant orchestra.
Neither of these fine singers quite fits the bill. I much admire Studer's performance -- she's got the Lolitalike coquettishness for the part; listening to her tease Herod could make a churchman run for the confessional. But her inexperience shows in the finale.
The virginal aspect of the role is beyond Marton -- her voice simply has too many years on it. But in the opera's final 20 minutes, she is superb. She gets beneath the skin of the part and her magnificent instrument, working at full throttle, conquers all obstacles.
Each supporting cast is good, with the Sony's a little better on balance. Both Jokanaans are excellent, but Bryn Terfel (on the Deutsche Grammophon) is slightly more youthful sounding than Bernd Weikl. While I like DG's Herod (Horst Hiestermann), I love Heinz Zednik on Sony.
The Herodias of Brigitte Fassbaender (Sony) is likewise better than that of Leonie Rysanek. The latter was a great singer, but she's long past her prime. Fassbaender is a true contralto and she's perfectly suited to Herodias.
But the most attractive voice on the Mehta recording belongs to Keith Lewis (as the young Syrian captain whose passion for Salome leads him to kill himself); his yearningly expressive singing is a joy, and it is the perfect voice to open the opera.