The BBC Proms celebrations of Richard Strauss's 150th anniversary reached fever pitch with this shattering performance of Salome; the opera that catapulted the German composer to worldwide fame and notoriety. Dripping in blood, and containing such taboo subjects as incest and necrophilia, one can only imagine how shocking it must have been to those in attendance at the opera's premiere in Dresden in 1905.
That it still has the power to appal and enthral in equal measure over a century later is testament to Strauss's skill at taking such unsavoury subject matter and bringing it to life with a score that sounds as innovative today as it must have done back then.
Given its popularity, this was the first time the opera had been performed in its entirety at the Proms, and it's hard to imagine a more audacious and enthralling debut than this incandescent performance from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (appearing at the Proms for the first time as well) under its musical director Donald Runnicles.
Although considered not as starry as their compatriots, the Berlin Staatskapelle or Berlin Philharmonic, the fact that they have this music, and this score, in their blood was evident in every bar, and they certainly relished their opportunity to shine in front of an audience of 5,000 rather than being hidden away in an orchestra pit. Every section pulled out all the stops to give as visceral a performance of this score as I've heard, and despite the occasional problem with balance never drowned the singers.
Donald Runnicles succeeded in bringing out both the beauty and the horror in the work, yet never resorted to bombast. The kaleidoscopic colours in Strauss's orchestration shone brilliantly under his inspired baton, and he and the orchestra were rightly awarded a huge ovation at the close.
'Nina Stemme confirmed that there are few if any sopranos who can touch her in this repertoire'
Following her success as Brunnhilde in last year's Ring cycle, Nina Stemme returned to sing the demanding title role in Strauss' opera for the first time in London, and triumphed once again. Any fears that adding the heavier soprano roles from the Wagner canon to her repertoire would tarnish her burnished soprano voice were instantly dispelled. Coquettish and child-like to begin with, she moulded Strauss' phrases with a sense of innocence that then gave way to steely determination as she demanded the head of Jochanaan. Her final scene is probably better described as a Liebeskopf than Liebestod, and here she rose to even greater heights, soaring over the huge orchestra with unflinching power. Hers was a world class performance, confirming that there are few if any sopranos who can touch her in this repertoire.
There was solid support from Samuel Youn who was suitably fervent as Jochanaan, Doris Soffel as a truly vile Herodias who would have chewed the scenery if there'd been any, and Burkhard Ulrich as her weak, lustful husband. Jews, Cappadocians, soldiers and Nazarenes were winningly filled from the ranks of the company's ensemble, confirming that the ensemble system still works.
Although billed as a semi-staging, it turned out to be more of a demi-semi-staging, with only Nina Stemme singing from memory throughout, yet nothing could diminish the overall power of this exhilarating performance. Astounding!