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This DVD should NOT be your "introduction" to Strauss's opera, if you're not already familiar with it
on October 7, 2013
Yes, Teresa Stratas gives Maria Callas a run for her money, both vocally and dramatically!!! Her singing is virtually *FLAWLESS* with regard to tone, style, control, variation and effect - and in all probability, Strauss himself would have applauded her vocal performance because she combines the "voice of an Isolde" with the temperament of a "sixteen year old princess", just as Strauss originally prescribed; exceptionally formidable, but always quintessentially feminine and never heavy.
Unfortunately, the director Gotz Friedrich completely missed the mark with crucial moments such as the Dance of the Seven Veils, which can make or break the characterization of Salome. As I commented elsewhere, Strauss specifically said that the dance was supposed to be performed in the "thoroughly decent" and solemn manner of an Oriental dance on a prayer mat, without any dramatics, and that Salome was NOT supposed to flirt with Herod at all.....NOR was she supposed to "play to the cistern". He allowed her ONE moment near the cistern, on the final trill, before prostrating herself at Herod's feet at the very end.
The film's dance may start out solemn and decent, but it quickly becomes very sexual, as Salome not only flirts with Herod - contrary to Strauss's specifications - but also writhes and gyrates near the cistern, as though in heat. I suppose the director wanted to convey the character's descent from relative "innocence" into 'monstrous' depravity, but that's not what Strauss had in mind when he composed the dance. He didn't see his Salome as another Carmen, and he would have been mortified to see the princess expose her NAKED BODY as Stratas (or at least a stand-in) does in this film.
It's not Salome's DANCE that's supposed to be shocking - contrary to the effect sought by Gotz Friedrich here. It's what she does AFTERWARDS - which should stand in stark contrast actually to the dignity and solemnity of her dance (at least as envisioned by Strauss).
Moreover, if you seriously think about it, Salome would in fact *SAVE* all her "passion" for when she possesses Jokanaan's head....she wouldn't *WASTE*/EXPEND this passion on the dance, which is basically just a means to an end for her (not an occasion to expose herself).
As misguided as some of Friedrich's direction is, Stratas definitely embodies his vision of Salome to perfection: a relatively innocent and harmless young girl in the beginning, who transforms into a creature of the night consumed by ravenous desire, but finally reclaims a sense of her lost innocence as she attempts to make philosophical sense of "the mystery of death" and "the mystery of love" (above and beyond her animalistic pursuit of Jokanaan's head).
Stratas PHYSICALLY assumes the comportment of a predatory animal as she relentlessly demands Herod, the Page and the Soldiers to present her with her "reward" - a far cry indeed from the dewy-eyed girl she portrayed when the story commenced, and the dewy-eyed girl she REVERTS to being while she rhapsodizes about the way Jokanaan makes her feel as the story ends.
All of this is a true testament to the stellar acting talents of Ms. Stratas.
Some of the GESTURES alone that are employed by Stratas to dramatize her character's inner workings, represent acting at its finest - for these gestures are exceedingly powerful and riveting, without ever degenerating into overblown histrionics or insincere theatricality (which sadly characterizes the acting of some of the supporting characters, including Jokaanan, whose gestures sometimes look awkward, and the Jews, whose gestures are much too inordinately comical even for characters supplying comic relief).
At least Astrid Varnay's theatricality as Herodias can be equated with the character's innate and absolute lack of PROPORTION (with regard to everything in her life, from her lust to her extravagance).
Herod is fine both vocally and gesturally, but his facial expressions leave a **LOT** to be desired (to put it mildly) as he insists to Salome that he will not "take a man's life" for her. The Tetrarch is supposed to be genuinely distressed and tormented at that point in time, and although this is conveyed when he eventually gives up and retreats to his throne, he doesn't look like he believes what he's saying at all on the aforementioned line (and when he sinks down onto the ground before Salome, burying his face beneath his hands, it looks like he's merely 'going through the motions' dictated by the director, without actually internalising what the character is supposed to feel).
And by making the Jews REPEATEDLY over-react, in a mock-comic fashion, to Herod's ramblings, Gotz Friedrich COMPLETELY DROPS THE BALL when the Tetarch offers Salome the Veil of the Sanctuary itself. That's supposed to be a VERY *GRAVE* moment - crystallizing the unthinkable nature of Salome's request, and the unthinkable lengths that Herod is willing to go to in order to stop her - but it's almost trivialized by the way the director has the Jews react to it (asinine and over-the-top, for the umpteenth time). I have an English translation of the opera on CD, which turns that "beat" into SUCH a serious and dramatic plot point, that watching it play out in this film is like watching an elementary school play.
Another HUGE NOTE OF CAUTION to anyone who buys this particular DVD version without already being familiar with the opera: the English notes provided within the DVD booklet (as translated from German notes) give a VERY *WARPED* interpretation of the central story. Salome is made out to be a highly sympathetic and tragic "heroine" of sorts, and the manner in which the plot is narrated BENDS the existing libretto to soften her character ludicrously, and almost vindicate and EXPIATE her in the end!!
While it's true that Salome is not entirely the "monster" that Herod ultimately makes her out to be, that both he and Herodias are much too wrapped up in themselves to even BEGIN to understand her feelings or where she's coming from, and that the princess COULD have been someone great and admirable if she had PROPER ROLE-MODELS and REAL GUIDANCE in her young life.....the fact that she isn't a thoroughbred villain does *NOT* make her some kind of misunderstood heroine either, the way the DVD booklet would have you believe.
Putting it another way, Salome may be called misguided at best, and is much more complex and even 'pure' to be called a femme fatale in the traditional sense, but she is NOT a CLOSET JULIET (as those daft note-writers seem to have deluded themselves into thinking. They ascribe the status of EPIPHANIC, SAGE PRONOUNCEMENTS to Salome's half-crazed musings on the 'mystery of love' and the 'mystery of death' - as though she were a woman like Juliet, Cleopatra, or at least Puccini's Tosca and Verdi's Violetta, who have suffered enough at length to become semi-'authorities' on love and death. This DVD's note-writers' attempts to portray Salome as an 'authority' on love and death are both risible and preposterous, considering that the princess's philosophizing at the end emanate from a state of *DELIRIUM* - and NOT from a place of credible suffering, wisdom, or gnosis).
She is not even one of Opera's 'flawed heroines' in the style of Bizet's Carmen. As much as I adore Salome, subjectively, the objective reality is that Carmen herself stands like an angel of light next to the Princess of Judea.
Salome - as originally created by Oscar Wilde in his play, and even in the slightly romanticised operatic incarnation of Strauss - is perhaps the only character in dramatic/operatic literature to be at one and the same time a pure, dreamy virgin and an unmitigated fiend. Teresa Stratas encapsulates this perplexing paradox effortlessly (even if some of the specific details of her interpretation, under Gotz Friedrich's direction, are sometimes at odds with both Wilde and Strauss, as mentioned before). The ineluctable conclusion is that we are so fascinated and mesmerized by Salome for the very reason that she is both Maiden and Monster.
Within her bosom are two hearts that beat alongside each other - the heart of a hopeless romantic, and the heart of a cold-blooded reptile.
The strength of this film ultimately lies in the way it captures that dichotomy, but owing to some of the director's diversions from Strauss's interpretive guidelines, and the grossly misleading notes in the DVD's booklet (where the nature of the story and the character of Salome herself are concerned), I wouldn't recommend this DVD as anyone's 'introduction' to the opera. It would be best to view this after one has first read ABOUT the inception of the opera, and listened to an audio recording that enables the individual to visualize things for himself/herself beforehand.