“A live volcano, a subterranean fire,” is how Mahler once described Strauss’s “Salome.”
The description returned to mind on Thursday night in Symphony Hall, as Boston audiences were treated to a sweeping and electric performance of this era-encapsulating score. They were also, not incidentally, given a taste of what should by right become a key element of the upcoming Andris Nelsons era at the BSO: opera in concert, at full blaze.
The BSO’s music director designate actually began his conducting life in the opera house, and he has never really left it, even while building other musical homes.
It would be hard to think of a more potent work with which to introduce this side of Nelsons’s career. From its premiere in 1905, “Salome” has always had a way of transfixing listeners. Its combination of modernist audacity, hedonistically brilliant orchestration, and seething subliminal power would of course change music history.
Earlier this week at Carnegie Hall, Nelsons led a performance of “Salome” with the forces of the Vienna State Opera. All but one of the principal singers from that performance journeyed up to Boston for this repeat performance with the BSO.
At the center of the cast, in the title role, was the young German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin who on Thursday night delivered a performance that was, if not note-perfect, full of strength and silvery beauty, and spellbinding in its dramatic arc, as she made visible — and audible — the slow build of a murderous obsession in real time. Any credible Salome must also find a way to project over Strauss’s enormous orchestra, and some sopranos can make the struggle feel like a pitched battle. Barkmin never did, and her poise and self-possession made her performance riveting.
As her stepfather, Herod, the tetrarch of Judea, Gerhard Siegel was delightfully limber and articulate, and mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel brought power and presence to the role of Herodias. As the prophet Jochanaan, or John the Baptist, the baritone Evgeny Nikitin had an imposing physical presence and brought the requisite dignity and grandeur to his singing. Carlos Osuna had a ringing clear tenor as the captain Narraboth.
For his part, Nelsons has deeply internalized this score, its idiom, and its pacing, to the point of almost dancing along on Thursday during his delicately shaped “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Balances were for the most part carefully managed, allowing for a striking clarity of detail while also setting up for a handful of truly hair-raising moments when the conductor took the lid off the orchestra. But this was a performance more about finesse than raw firepower. During the famous kiss chords near the end the sound seemed to take on an almost physical quality, hanging in the air like a vapor.
Throughout the night, the BSO was in top form, seeming to give him everything he asked for, and then some. It was a great night for the woodwinds and brass in particular. Nelsons’s first season of programs, announced earlier this week, rather bafflingly contains no full operas under his own baton, but there will no doubt be more of these nights in the BSO’s future. As beginnings go, this one was auspicious.