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Strauss's Salome may seem quite tame by today's standards, but it stunned the musical world at the premiere December 9, 1905. The princess's lust for John the Baptist, combined with Strauss's sensuous music, the spectacle of Salome performing her infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils," then demanding the head of the Baptist as reward, was shocking, moral debasement. When in the final scene, to Strauss' most sensuous music, Salome kisses the severed head of the Baptist in a spasm of unrequited passion, it was the final straw, scandalizing audiences as well as censors. However the opera since has enjoyed great success with audiences and now is standard repertory.
Salome requires a mammoth orchestra including 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 harps, about 60 strings, rows of woodwinds, plus cameo appearances by harmonium and organ, although Strauss later on approved of a version with reduced orchestra for smaller opera houses. According to him, Salome should be sung by "a 16-year old princess with the voice of an Isolde," an impossible requirement. The role is taxing in the extreme with a relentlessly high tessitura, and while there are no high C's, there are many B-flats and B's, as well as two G-flats below middle C! Salome has always attracted sopranos: what woman wouldn't like to be identified with the role of a beautiful young virgin?
Marie Wittich was sang the premiere in Dresden in 1905. She found the opera "distasteful and obscene...I won't do it, I'm a decent woman." Wittich allowed a ballerina to perform the infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils" at the premiere but later insisted on doing it herself— much to the embarrassment of Strauss, as Wittich was a large rather ungainly woman.
Just two years after the premiere, excerpts from Salome appeared on recordings. In 1907 bits and pieces were recorded acoustically by Rudolf Berger, Baptist Hoffman and Friedrich Brodersen all as Jochanaan, all on single-sided ten-inch disks. Ernst Kraus, who was the first Berlin Herod, also recorded two brief excerpts. Emmy Destinn, who sang the first Berlin Salome, in 1907 recorded two short excerpts from Salome's apostrophe to Jochanaan, and two years later Johanna Gadski recorded a 1:34 snippet. Göta Ljungberg, after singing Salome at Covent Garden in 1924, made a truncated recording of the finale and five years later recorded it again although this time not as severely cut. Oddly, two brief orchestral excerpts were recorded in 1933 conducted by Piero Coppola. Marjorie Lawrence recorded the final scene in French in 1934, and in 1943 Liselotte Enck recorded it in the original language. In 1948 Christel Goltz appeared in a Dresden radio broadcast with Joseph Keilberth on the podium, recorded the entire opera for Decca/London in 1954 with Clemens Krauss conducting, and made her third recording in 1963 with Otmar Suitner conducting. In 1952 Philips recorded a fine performance starring Walburga Wegner with Rudolf Moralt with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (available briefly on CD in Philips' Opera Collector Limited Edition - 438 664). Since that time there have been more about three dozen complete recordings, both commercial and pirated, and currently (2012) DVDs with Teresa Stratas, Maria Ewing, Karita Mattila, Angela Denoke, and two with Nadja Michael—plus a number of pirate videos you can find on the internet.
Listed are recordings of the opera with label information at the time of writing. Some of these have been deleted,some reissued with different label information. Check ArkivMusic and the internet for current availability.
Cheryl Studer (Salome); Leonie Rysanek (Herodias) Horst Heistermann (Herod); Bryn Terfel (Jochanaan); Clemens Bieber (Narraboth); Berlin Opera Orch/Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 431 810 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 42 min.
Cheryl Studer is in top form on this DG recording -- highly impressive vocally and interpretively. Her youthful sound and ease with the notes are commendable. Leonie Rysanek's Herodias is perfection; how strange it must have seemed to her singing the character of the mother of a character she herself had sung with enormous success. Byrn Terfel's Jochanaan is a model of masculine power, with Horst Heistermann a fine Herod. Giuseppe Sinopoli's direction is sensuous and assured if rather understated - from an orchestral standpoint all is pristine if rather unexciting. The recording has a spacious sound stage, with voices well-balanced.
Hildegard Behrens (Salome); Agnes Baltsa (Herodias); Karl-Walter Böhm (Herod); José van Dan (Jochanaan); Wieslaw Ochman (Narraboth); Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Herbert von Karajan, cond.
EMI 49358 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 45 min.
Given the manifold vocal problems of Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009) in the final years of her remarkable career, it is refreshing to listen to her 1977 recording of Salome conducted by Herbert von Karajan, recorded just before that year's Salzburg Festival. At that time she was a shining star on the operatic horizon, magnificent in every way, with beauty of tone and sufficient power to sustain Karajan's leisurely tempi and be heard over the masses of orchestral opulence. This EMI recording has been reissued in the label's Great Recordings of the Century series (67159). It surely should be in every Salome collection. An aircheck of the 1977Salzburg broadcast is even more spectacular, with better sound to boot. Now that some historic Salzburg performances are being reissued perhaps this will be among them -- we can hope.
Birgit Nilsson (Salome); Grace Hoffman (Herodias); Gerhard Stolze (Herod); Eberhard Wachter (Jochanaan); Waldemar Kmentt (Narraboth); Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Sir Georg Solti, cond.
LONDON 414 414 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 40 min.
Birgit Nilsson was famous for her powerhouse Salome, and the 1961 recording with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic remains stunning, although she's occasionally her pitch is suspect. When the grand Swedish soprano sings Salome this is no teenage girl. Gerhard Stolze is a manaical Herod, Grade Hoffman a strong Herodias, with vivid Decca sonics. Nilsson's live recording of 1965 from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, with Georges Sébastien conducting and a strong supporting cast, shows the Swedish soprano at her very best, in superb stereo sound as well.
Montserrat Caballé (Salome); Regina Resnik (Herodias); Sherrill Milnes (Jochanaan); Richard Lewis (Herod); James King (Narraboth); London Symphony Orch/Erich Leinsdorf, cond.
RCA 6644 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 41 min.
Salome was one of Caballe's favorite roles, an unlikely choice considering her physical attributes but she surely has the required vocal quality for the role. There are no problems whatever with the notes, and her silvery, controlled sound is near-perfect for the young Judean princess. Here she is in her prime with a supporting cast that has not one weak member. What a luxury to have Sherrill Milnes as the Baptist, Regina Resnik in one of her superb "queen" roles. The London Symphony is at its best under Erich Leinsdorf's keen direction. Recorded in Walthamstow Hall in London in 1968, the set was engineered by Robert Auger, a guarantee of sonic excellence, and produced by Richard Mohr. Like most recordings of Salome, it is now out-of-print. I'd surely like to hear it in a high-quality remastering.
Inga Nielsen (Salome); Anja Silja (Herodias); Robert Hale (Jochanaan); Reiner Goldberg (Herod); Deon van der Walt (Narraboth); Danish National Radio Symphony Orch/Michael Schonwandt, cond.
CHANDOS 9611 (2 CDs) TT: l hr. 40 min.
This 1997 Salome is of considerable interest because of the title-role performance by Inga Nielsen, a young Danish soprano who appears regularly at the Vienna State Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden and other leading houses, as well as at festivals and on television. She is an impressive Salome. Her sound is appropriately youthful, she sings on pitch and develops characterization effectively. This is, indeed, an impressive performance. It seems obvious that Nielsen has studied Ljuba Welitsch's performance—although her voice doesn't have the personality of the Bulgarian dynamo. Aside from Nielsen, there is little to recommend except for the typical Chandos high quality sound. Reiner Goldberg's Herod is unevenly sung, not as disturbing as Anja Silja's Herodias. Silja was always an exciting if vocally deficient Salome decades ago. It is true that Herodias is supposed to be an unpleasant, shrewish character, but Silja's incredible wobble is enough to, as they say, take the paint off the ceiling. Other notable Salomes of the past have switched from daughter to mother, notably Astrid Varnay and Leonie Rysanek, but they never exhibited the vocal distress displayed by Silja. Robert Hale's Jochanaan also is unsteady, far removed from the richness and security of Bryn Terfel, Sherrill Milnes and Eberhard Wachter in their recordings.
Karen Huffstodt (Salome); Helene Jossoud (Herodias); José van Dam (Jochanaan); Jean Dupouy (Herod); Jean-Luc Viala (Narraboth); Lyon Opera Orch/Kent Nagano, cond.
VIRGIN CLASSICS VCD 791477 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 45 min.
Shortly after the German premiere, Strauss prepared a French version of Salome, necessitating a few changes in the music to accommodate Oscar Wilde's original text. This was premiered in 1907, but subsequent performances merely translated Hedwig Lachmann's German version with no changes in the score. Virgin Classics has recorded the original French version, and those who love the opera will find it fascinating. The performance is adequate although little more. Karen Hoffstodt's voice has neither the power or the stamina the role demands, and is sometimes off-pitch. Conductor Kent Nagano's concept of this volatile score is tame and leisurely when it should be dynamic and propulsive, and the live recording favors the voices. If you want to hear Salome in French, or at least a part of it, there's Marjorie Lawrence's superb 1934 recording of the final scene.
Ljuba Welitsch (Salome); Kerstin Thorborg (Herodias); Herbert Janssen (Jochanaan); Frederick Jagel (Herod); Brian Sullivan (Narraboth); Metropolitan Opera Orch/Fritz Reiner (live Dec. 3, 1949)
GUILD 2230/31 (2 CDs) 2 hr. 36 min.
MELODRAM 27042 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 34 min.
Ljuba Welitsch (Salome); Elisabeth Höngen (Herodias); Hans Hotter (Jochanaan); Set Svanholm (Herod); Brian Sullivan (Narraboth); Metropolitan Opera Orch/Fritz Reiner, cond. (live Jan. 10, 1952)
MYTO MCD 952.125 (2 CDs) TT: l hr. 32 min.
Two distinctive, historic interpretations by the legendarty Bulgarian singer Ljuba Welitsch (1913 -1996), one far superior to the other. The 1949 performance, recorded Welitsch's first season at the Met, finds her giving 110% all the way. The depraved/innocent sound is ever apparent, the bold thrusts of sound defy the score's difficulty. It is sad that Welitsch's voice had begun its deterioration by 1952—however she still is mightily impressive. In 1952 there sometimes is a chalky whiteness to her sound; it's not as easy as before—and in the final scene she anticipates the beat on the words, "Ah! Jokanaan, Jokanaan, du warst schön" (Ah! Jokanaan, thou wert fair"), makes a fine recovery, and is a bit off-pitch on "Ich habe ihn geküst, deinen Mund" ("I have kissed thy mouth"). Supporting casts in both performances are strong and there is no question there is a Strauss master—Fritz Reiner—on the podium. These sets represent the finest sound quality I've ever heard for both broadcasts. For the 1949 broadcast, best sound is on the GUILD release, which also contains Puccini's Gianni Schicchi from the same broadcst (REVIEW). The 1949 set is filled with excerpts from the January 6, 1951 performance of Don Giovanni (also conducted by Reiner) as well as excerpts from an Aida (conducted by Emil Cooper) from March 11, 1950. The 1952 set offers a more extensive sampling from the 1950 Aida. If you have but one complete Welitsch Salome surely it should be the 1949—it is strange that considering the hundreds of performances she gave of the opera during her all-too-brief career more haven't shown up. We can hope!
Leonie Rysanek (Salome); Grace Hoffman (Herodias); Eberhard Waechter (Jochanaan); Hans Hopf (Herod); Waldemar Kmentt (Narraboth); Vienna State Opera Orch/Karl Bhm, cond. (live Dec. 22, 1972)
RCA 69430 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 37 min.
OPERA D'ORO OPD 1165 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 39 min.
December 22, 1972 was a special occasion for the Vienna State Opera, the first time their beloved Leonie Rysanek sang Richard Strauss' Salome. She had just added it to her repertory, sang it in Munich, Athens, and several times in New York at the Metropolitan Opera in March of that year. I was fortunate to be in the audience for the first of these Met performances, March 6, and it was an unforgettable event. In addition to Rysanek's stunning performance, that occasion was special for me as prior to the performance I met and had the opportunity to speak briefly with Ljuba Welitsch in the Met lobby. Welitsch, the definitive Salome of the 40s and early '50s, was in New York for cameo appearances as the Duchess in Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. But back to Rysanek. Her huge, secure voice filled the Met as it did the Vienna State Opera on this recording. With its predominantly high tessitura, the role of Salome is ideal for Rysanek. One must stretch the imagination to believe that all this sound emanates from a 16-year old girl! She makes an attempt to scale down her voice during her initial scenes, but after that it is an all-stops-out performance, intense both dramatically and vocally. Just before the final scene, as the head of John the Baptist appears, there is a scream—no way to tell if it is Salome or Herodias, but it surely is effective. Rysanek leaves out three notes in the final scene. The text reads, "Ah! Ah! Jochanaan....du warst schön" with the first exclamation a D# going up to an D, the second an F (beginning at 5:31 in track 4). These notes are omitted in all of Rysaneks recordings (all live), for whatever reason.
The Vienna State Opera surrounded Rysanek with their finest. As an ensemble this could not be bettered. The entire cast is splendid, and with Karl Böhm in the pit we have an abundance of Straussian opulence, the conductor doubtless grateful he had Rysanek rather than Gwyneth Jones as he endured a year earlier in the Philips Hamburg recording. The Vienna recording was made in fine stereo by Austrian Radio. Voices are a bit overly prominent but to most opera lovers that might be a plus. Program notes are in German, English and French with a synopsis of the opera but no libretto. Opera d'Oro has released the same performance at budget price with limited notes, just about the same sound quality and with different trackings. The HRE label has an all-Strauss CD of Rysanek which includes the Salome finale which they identify as "Vienna 1971—Ferdinand Leitner, cond." This could not be true, as the new RCA set from December 1972 is the first performance by the Vienna State Opera with the famous soprano. Perhaps it was a touring opera company, or the date is incorrect?
Eva Marton (Salome); Brigitte Fassbaender (Herodias); Bernd Weikl (Jochanaan); Heinz Zednik (Herod); Keith Lewis (Narraboth); Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Zubin Mehta, cond. (rec. Nov. 1990)
SONY CLASSICAL S2K 46717 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 39 min.
Eva Marton's voice, with its thick harsh edge, is not appropriate for Salome. She attempts, with moderate success, to scale down her sound in the first third of the opera - after that it's blast away. Never is there any sensuous beauty, as there surely should be at least in the final scene when she sings of her love for the Baptist. Marton probably would have made a fine Herodias. Contributions of the remainder of the cast are average at best, particularly Weikl's lacklustre Jochanaan. The only reason to have this recording is the Berlin Philharmonic, their only recording of the opera. Consistently they play with remarkable virtuosity under Mehta's impassioned leadership. Sony's recording, produced by Steven Epstein and Grace K. Row and engineered by Kevin Boutote, is superb. Currently the set, like most recordings of the opera, is out-of-print.
Inge Borkh (Salome); Irmgard Barth (Herodias); Hans Hotter (Jochanaan); Max Lorenz (Herod); Lorenz Fehenberger (Narraboth); Bavarian State Orch/Joseph Keilberth, cond. (live July 21, 1951)
ORFEO D'OR C 342 932 (2 CDs) TT: 1 hr. 39 min.
Inge Borkh (Salome); Blanche Thebom (Herodias); Mack Harrell (Jochanaan); Ramon Vinay (Herod); Giulio Gari (Narraboth); Metropolitan Opera Orch/Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond.
ARKADIA CDMP 459.3 (3 Cds) (also includes Elektra and finale of Salome with Christel Goltz)
The Orfeo d'Or performance was recorded more than a half-century ago in Munich, just two years after the composer's death and is of interest primarily for the magnificent Jochanaan of Hans Hotter who had sung the role many times with Strauss conducting. Inge Borkh's voice never was really right for Salome, but she was a fine artist in command of the notes. She has plenty of power and is on-pitch, but in the 1951 performance there is a rapid narrow vibrato odd to hear. Despite laudatory comments in the CD notes, Keilberth's Strauss isn't very exciting. The mono sound is superb except for overly-prominent percussion. Producers have provided only eight tracks for the entire opera. This is a forgettable Salome.
Things are quite different in the Met broadcast of 1958. Borkh by this time had her interpretation finalized and doubtless was inspired by the dynamic conducting of Mitropoulos. The supporting cast is quite superior to the 1951 performance, particularly Blanche Thebom's Herodias and Mark Harrell's Jochanaan. This was an exciting afternoon at the Met with well-balanced mono broadcast sound. The 3-CD set also contains Borkh's NYP/Mitropoulos Elektra from 1958, and another Salome (from just before the "Dance of the Seven Veils" to the conclusion) with Christel Goltz, Vinay and Thebom, Mitropoulos conducting, a Met broadcast of 1955. This is a fascinating Strauss set well worth owning in spite of production deficiencies (Thebom and Harrell's names spelled incorrectly; Paul Schoeffler is listed as Jochanaan in the 1955 Salome although he of course doesn't sing in the music included on the CD). There are eighteen tracks for Borkh's Salome. Borkh made two recordings of the final scene—in 1955 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, now reissued in RCA's "Living Stereo" series, which has magnificent recorded sound (three scenes from Elektra are also included on this superb CD), and a year later with Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic.