Before singing major soprano roles, Nadja Michael was a mezzo. The relatively young singer, not yet forty, seems to be conquering the operatic world. There is good reason for her success, although, judging from these three performances, vocally she is not consistent. Obviously she takes care of herself—physically, she is a knock-out, slender, petite, and one wonders where all that sound comes from. When taking curtain calls, she bows so low that her hands touch the floor—not many sopranos (or non-sopranos) can do that. Her athleticism permits her to be very active on stage, and directors take advantage of her stamina. Dramatically she is highly expressive and adventurous. These three new major videos show her strengths and weaknesses. The Royal Opera House Salome was recorded March 2008, an annoying production by David McVicar who places the proceeding in a dingy underground slaughterhouse. Modern costumes are by Es Devlin. Salome wearing a simple white, low-cut dress (the better to display blood?). In this production almost everyone else looks unwashed, particularly Jochanaan. When the executioner, acted by body-builder Dundan Meadows, goes down into the cistern to decapitate the Baptist, he is totally nude, and a few minutes later when he returns holding Jochanaan's head by the hair, covered with blood. Salome places the head on the silver platter, and her interaction with it is highly sexual. When Herod orders her to be killed, she is not crushed by the soldiers as ordered by Strauss, but raped by the executioner. Another bizarre episode is the "Dance of the Seven Veils," which isn't that at all. McVicar has decided the dance shows the seven stages of Salome's youth including her molestation by Herod, who does most of the "dance" with her (!). Michael must be exhausted towards the end of the opera—perhaps this explains some of her off-pitch singing. Vocally, this is not a Salome to treasure. The British audience seemed to love this production; I surely didn't.
The La Scala Salome dates from a year earlier. Erich Wonder's sets and Susanne Raschig's costumes are more traditional (fortunately!). Most of the singers are superior to those in the ROH production, particularly Falk Struckmann's Jochanaan. Michael again is agitated and active on stage and vocally she is in top form—and she does get to actually dance the "Dance of the Seven Veils," and most effectively. This is a compelling performance and surely the one of the two mentioned here that does justice to Strauss's masterpiece. Video and audio on both sets are excellent. The ROH set includes a second disk, a "documentary" in which McVicar explains his bizarre approach to the opera, and interviews with members of the cast. Don't forget that the Met production of Salome with an incredible performance by Karita Mattila, already seen in movie theaters, will be available next year on DVD—it is worth waiting for.
Tosca is a production from the 2007 Bregenzer Festspiele, presented on the huge floating stage. In previous years, the Festival has featured La Bohème, West Side Story, and Il trovatore (the latter unenthusiastically reviewed on this site). This Tosca has much to offer vocally, although the production is a quirk of producer Philipp Himmelmann and stage director Johannes Leiacker. The principal set is a huge "eye" 164 ft. high and 94 ft. wide representing Big Brother, with a moving scaffold sometimes occupied by singers. The cast is extraordinary. Gidon Saks is a superb Scarpia, and in this version of the opera he assists in torturing Cavaradossi. Saks is truly lecherous in every way; as he sings the Act I closing he slowly removes his shirt, and his encounter with Tosca in Act II is a physical battle between good and evil—she sings the beginning of "Vissi d'arte" while he is on top of her. When she finally stabs him one feels that he deserved the second stab in the groin. Zoran Todorovich is a new tenor, known recently for his performances in operetta. After a rather shaky "Recondita armonia" he proves to be a fine Cavaradossi—he is a tenor to watch. Nadja Michael also gets off to a wobbly start, but soon is in stride. She is a volatile, highly agitated Tosca, dramatically exciting. During the last act as Cavaradossi is in prison, Tosca is on top of the infamous "eye" which is now darkened. After he is killed, his body is dumped into the water, and Tosca is slowly falls in a spiral; at least that is what we see—I cannot imagine what those in the audience saw. Conductor Ulf Schirmer does his job very well, and the orchestra is outstanding. Video is excellent except for some ill-advised quarter-screen shots in the first act. Audio is remarkably good considering the open-air circumstances, capturing Puccini's rich orchestration with the warmth and richness heard in the opera house. Recommended!
R.E.B. (November 2008)