It is a fascinating paradox of playing opera in concert that, to achieve the greatest effect within the constraints of the concert format, it helps if one has first experienced the opera in its full theatrical glory. This would certainly seem to be true of the Swedish soprano Malin Byström, at least where the title role in Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera Salome is concerned.
The singer’s debut in the role – for the Dutch National Opera in 2017, under the direction of the auteur theatre-maker Ivo van Hove – met with rapturous acclaim from critics and audiences alike. The emotional intelligence and perfect poise of that performance were last night conveyed once again at the Usher Hall, where Byström was supported by the splendid Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of English conductor Edward Gardner.
Salome is a complex role. Living in the gilded cage of her stepfather, the lascivious King Herod, the princess’s desire for Jochanaan (John the Baptist, imprisoned in the palace) leads the young Captain of the Guard, Narraboth, to kill himself. This is an extraordinary introduction to the human passions at their furthest reaches, a rapid rite of passage that teaches Salome about the tragic connection between sex and death – a connection she will exploit when, having performed the Dance of the Seven Veils for Herod, she exacts as her payment John the Baptist's head.
Byström expresses her character’s journey – from jagged, youthful innocence, to knowing manipulation of male lust and her own murderous desire – with compelling vocal and emotional range. Her performance is measured perfectly against the heart-straining crescendos and the anguished, contemplative lulls of Strauss’s score, all of which are played by the superb orchestra with tremendous sense of colour and contrast.
The supporting singers are universally excellent. Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter’s Jochanaan is the embodiment of dignity and religious conviction, while German tenor Gerhard Siegel’s Herod expresses his character’s shameless decadence with an alacrity that borders on the satirical. There are also tremendous performances from Katarina Dalayman (gloriously aggrieved and sarcastic as Herod’s humiliated queen, Herodias) and Bror Magnus Tødenes (a convincingly desperate Narraboth).
Yet the evening belonged to Byström, who – in rising to the great emotional heights and plumbing the soul-shuddering depths of Strauss’s opera – had the Usher Hall audience cheering her to the rafters.
No further performances