As the reader can glean from the heading, this performance was recorded on October 11, 2008 at the Met – a one-shot live affair – and it is quite simply a stunning account of this Richard Strauss masterpiece. Some Met habitués claim Karita Mattila's performance in 2004, however, was even better. Perhaps it was, but I would have to believe the difference was only marginal. Moreover, this Sony Classics/Met release would be hard to beat in the other roles, and the contributions from conductor, orchestra and production staff are considerable as well.
Mattila was forty-eight at the time of this performance and manages reasonably well to project a somewhat youthful, albeit depraved demeanor. She exudes a feverish intensity in this role, fully capturing the degenerate and obsessive character of Salome, the biblical "damsel". Mattila is in fine voice throughout and her dancing in the famous Seven Veils number comes across appropriately with a sort of sinister sensuality. Her dancing – or striptease dance – drew more than a little notice in the media. Let me say right off that Mattila's highly hyped nude moment is not shown in this production (the camera pans away at the last second), owing to Met director Peter Gelb's concerns about broadcasting the performance over PBS. It is just as well because nudity and eroticism have never quite worked in the opera house the way they have in the movies, where perfect bodies abound. In a world where the opera isn't over until the fat lady sings, Ms. Mattila, certainly no fat lady, looks attractive enough but is hardly a body double for Angelina Jolie. All that said, the opera is still shocking to most audiences, more for Salome's love-making to the severed head of John the Baptist than for the nudity or other erotic features in recent productions.
As suggested above, most of the other roles are well sung here, especially Ildiko Komlósi's Herodias and Juha Uusitalo's John the Baptist. Kim Begley makes a convincing Herod, too. Patrick Summers conducts with a full grasp of Strauss's eroticism and grotesquerie, and keeps textures clear and in proper context, despite Strauss's unusually large orchestra.
The production features modern dress the major characters, save John the Baptist. Sets are modest but effective and camera work is excellent. The sound reproduction is also quite vivid and all other production values are high.
There have been many notable Salomes out of the past, including those of Mary Garden, Emmy Destinn, Ljuba Welitsch, Birgit Nilsson and the first one I heard, Montserrat Caballé, via a 1968 RCA LP. Caballé had an excellent supporting cast, with Sherrill Milnes as John the Baptist, Richard Lewis as Herod and Regina Resnik as Herodias, and with Erich Leinsdorf leading the London Symphony Orchestra. But any performance or recording of this opera largely succeeds or fails on the strength of its Salome, and this Sony/Met effort wins you over convincingly with Karita Mattila's sizzling portrayal. Fans of this opera or 20th century opera in general, or fans of Ms. Mattila should find this a highly rewarding effort.
Copyright © 2011, Robert Cummings.