Richard Strauss, "Salome," performed by Christoph Von Dohnanyi conducting the Vienna Philharmonic; Catherine Malfitano (Salome), Bryn Terfel (Jochanaan), Herod (Kenneth Riegel), Herodias (Hanna Schwarz), Narraboth (Kim Begley), London 444 178-2. Strauss, "Salome," performed by Seiji Ozawa conducting the Dresden State Orchestra; Jessye Norman (Salome), James Morris (Jochanaan), Herod (Walter Raffeiner), Herodias (Kerstin Witt), Narraboth (Richard Leech), Philips 432 153-2.
These competing versions of "Salome" each have something to sell: Philips has Jessye Norman in the title role; London has Christoph Von Dohnanyi conducting.
Strauss remarked that he wrote the role of Salome for "a 16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde." He meant that he wanted a voice big enough and bright enough to carry over the enormous orchestra, but sufficiently girlish-sounding to suggest vulnerability. That makes it easy to understand why Norman sings the role only in concert, never in the opera house. Her magnificent voice is huge and she can handle Salome's high notes, but there is nothing vulnerable-sounding about it. Norman's singing, with its majestic, almost contralto-like quality, makes her sound as if she could overcome any obstacle. Moreover, she so concentrates on making everything sound so beautiful and assured, it's impossible to believe in her as a sex-obsessed teen-ager. If a singer does not convey Salome's hysteria, she has no business taking the role.
Most of the rest of the cast is strong in more appropriate ways. James Morris is an impassioned and secure Jochanaan, and he captures the role's prophetic urgency. Walter Raffeiner and Kerstin Witt are more than merely competent as the Herods, and Richard Leech's Narraboth is one of the most beautifully sung on records. Seiji Ozawa conducts the Dresden orchestra -- which performed the work's premiere in 1905 -- with assurance. But this recording is mostly for fans of Norman; "Salome" is, above all, about Salome.
Dohnanyi's "Salome" is something of an exception to that rule. Not that there's anything wrong about Malfitano's splendidly sung princess -- which conveys bite and personality and a mastery of inflections (particularly when she demands the head of Jochanaan) that would have made the composer happy.
But the composer once told the Dresden orchestra -- after a particularly stormy rehearsal -- to think of "this opera as a scherzo with a fatal conclusion." What he meant is that he wanted orchestral textures -- except for climaxes -- to be almost as airy as those in Mozart or Mendelssohn. In this regard, Dohnanyi has succeeded as well as any conductor since Reiner and Karajan. With the great Viennese orchestra and the remarkable sound accorded by the engineers, Dohnanyi conveys an enormous amount of detail and keeps it within the confines of a performance that never loses sight of its tragic destination.
The supporting cast is as fine as Ozawa's. Bryn Terfel's Jochanaan is as forceful as the one he recorded for Deutsche Grammophon four years earlier and superior to it in terms of intimacy. Kenneth Riegel's Herod conveys all the tetrarch's moods, whether shouting, beseeching or shaking in terror; Hanna Schwarz's Herodias is a convincing termagant; and Kim Begley's Narraboth, while no match for Leech's, is good enough.
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear an excerpt of Christoph Von Dohnanyi conducting "Salome," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.