In Grotesque ‘Salome,’ Lise Davidsen Leaves Marker For The Ages

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Salome (Lise Davidsen) wields a gun in the Opéra national de Paris production of Strauss’ opera. (Photos © Charles Duprat)

PARIS — Half a century from now, and beyond, audience members who attend the Opéra national de Paris production this month of Strauss’ Salome will be able to tell their children and grandchildren, “I was in the audience when Lise Davidsen sang Salome at the Bastille.” Davidsen’s Salome is a milestone in opera’s chronicles. Her performance is another remarkable interpretation to add to her already distinguished role debuts this season. Davidsen is the peerless soprano of her time in the same way our most precious divas — from Callas and Gruberova to Sutherland — were in theirs.

The instant Davidsen arrives on the Bastille stage until the fall of the final curtain, everything and everyone become shadows in her presence. Arvo Pärt once said, “The creative center is the heart not the head. This is the secret which great singers have. They are not stepping from one place to another, they’re moving a little above the ground.” In her interpretation of Salome, Davidsen takes us to that unimaginable stratosphere with her heart. Her voice transcends, floats, and shimmers above every nuance in Strauss’ concentrated score. 

Herold (Gerhard Siegel) listens to the Five Jews arguing about God.

Davidsen’s Salome is a femme fatale for the women of our time. She does not need to be scantily clad nor posture her physicality vulgarly to insert her presence. Dressed, or rather cloaked, in a white pantsuit in a Comme des Garçons-meets-Goth styling, Davidsen’s sensuality is grounded by a magnetic composure. Simply put, without Davidsen, this production of Salome would be despairingly shallow. Her vocal finesse steers an emotional journey that leaves us shaken.

This remounting of Lydia Steier’s 2022 production banks on the work’s history as an object of controversy: from the premiere of Oscar Wilde’s play in Paris in 1896 to Strauss’ opera in Dresden in 1905. Steier’s sensation-for-sensation’s-sake approach was a dangerous precedent in 2022 at the height of the #MeToo movement. It remains more so two years later.

The set (by Momme Hinrichs) is a post-apocalyptic concrete bunker where Jochanaan’s dungeon holds center stage. Men in Hazmat suits dispose of bodies. There is an air of depravity that predicates the gruesome outcome.

Salome (Lise Davidsen) is entranced by Jochanaan (John Reuter, in cage).

Upstairs, a glass atrium houses an orgy fantasy masquerade party. Our vision is obfuscated by the smeared glass. Men, women, and sex-workers slither awkwardly like lascivious snakes in a pit. Temptation is no longer a titillation or a considered moral value. Lust is the currency du jour. 

The question has to be asked: How does a female director consider such a portrayal as serving the role of women in society? Unjustified shock directives in opera are simply not the way forward. There is a complexity and subtlety in the story of Salome dating to its biblical contexts but more so as it pertains to the sexual emancipation of women and the deliberations on temptation and power. 

The “Dance of the Seven Veils” is the most guiltily gratuitous and the most heart-breaking scene in the opera. Steier stages the seduction as an incestuous rape of Salome by her stepfather, Herod, before a gang rape ensues. Admittedly, the scene is covert and veiled, but the implications are clear. The scene is choreographed grotesquely to the pulse of the score. There is nothing to gain by staging the “Dance of the Veils” in such a horrifying manner, save to show Salome’s resilience. In this case, Davidsen’s resolve was established in the opening.

“Davidsen’s Salome is a milestone in opera’s chronicles.”

The second honors of the evening went to the Paris Opera Orchestra under the baton of Mark Wigglesworth, who drew a muscular sound from all the sections. There was never any feeling that the players were restrained. In particular, the strings twirled as one in Strauss’ swirling dance motifs. The brass section delivered with majestic authority. 

This Salome was cast with seasoned Strauss experts. Gerhard Siegel’s Herod was obviously directed as a buffoonish character. His tenor was bright and focused but a little disconnected from the dramatic possibilities. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Herodias was also excitable and, like Siegel, her sound cut through like a metal blade. There was never any point in the opera where a contest of being heard over the forces of the orchestra was an issue.

But we must return to Davidsen, the last woman onstage. Her Salome will linger long in our memory.