August 4, 2001 Tanglewood concert review by Dave Read
For his Tanglewood swan song as BSO Music Director, Seiji Ozawa chose to conduct Richard Strauss’ Salome, Opus 54, performed without staging and costumes – no dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils. No matter; Strauss’ music and Oscar Wilde’s poetry, brought to life by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and an impressive cast of vocalists, led by Deborah Voigt, were more than enough to elicit an eruption of applause that lasted well after Maestro Ozawa had scurried off the stage of the Koussevitsky Music Shed. (Photo shows Seiji Ozawa seated behind podium while soloists took their bows.)
This was an hour and three-quarters of incomparable aural beauty; a sonic statue sculpted by Ozawa. Whenever anyone present muses on the Maestro’s Tanglewood tenure, this performance should reverberate in memory, as Haiku does. Instead of a set full of scenery and costumes for the singers, they stood on a platform behind the orchestra. The opera’s literary and artistic antecedents include the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, a short story by Gustave Flaubert Herodias, and a panoply of paintings, including one by Gustave Moreau that inspired Oscar Wilde.
With only minimal dramatic action to follow on stage, one was free to focus on Oscar Wilde’s poetry via the supertitles. For example: As soon as Salome’s entreaty to Jokanaan,
“I am amorous of thy body!… The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body… Nor the feet of the dawn… Nor the breast of the moon…”
is rebuffed by Jokanaan: “Back daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world…”
– Salome revises her opinion on his body and shifts her attention to his hair: “Thy body is hideous… It is like a plastered wall where vipers have crawled. It is like a whitened sepulchre full of loathsome things…. It is of thy hair that I am enamored, Jokanaan. Thy hair is like clusters of grapes… The long black nights, when the moon hides her face, when the stars are afraid, are not so black as thy hair.”
Left on the page, such language may look overblown, if descriptive and colorful. Its magic lays in the rhythm, the repartee of the dialogues, the contradictions and emotional swings. In performance, it allows the singers to display the full range of their gifts, as the score does the orchestra. What better choice than Salome as Ozawa’s swan song to Tanglewood!
It is delicious to speculate on the similies Wilde would draw if he were to describe Ms. Voigt’s performance. She was a commanding and brilliant presence; her performance was a masterpiece, rich as a Michelangelo.
This was Seiji Ozawa’s good bye to his beloved Tanglewood, delivered with the full vocabulary of music. He spoke no words to the audience – which would have been as silly as shining neon lights on the Sistene Chapel.
(Editor’s note: It would be 4 years before James Levine’s Tanglewood debut as BSO Music Director, with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.)
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