Royal Opera’s Brutal but Engrossing Salome

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Salome: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House / Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 5.6.2012. (JPr)

David McVicar’s Salome © Clive Barda

I don’t know what is happening at Covent Garden currently but I hope it lasts. One opera on from making me actually like Falstaff comes Salome, another opera I have been going to for 30 years without really been engrossed by … until now! That first performance in 1982 had Josephine Barstow as Salome, Bernd Weikl as Jokanaan … and John Tomlinson in the small role of as First Nazarene.

Oscar Wilde wrote the original play in French, in 1891, and it premièred in Paris in 1896. Richard Strauss saw it in Germany at the Neues Theater in Berlin in 1903 under the direction of Max Reinhardt and he premièred his Salome at the Royal Opera House in Dresden in 1905. The familiar tale tells us in one act the Biblical story of Salome, step-daughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who, to her step-father’s dismay but to the delight of her mother Herodias, requests the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as reward for dancing the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, and for revenge on Jokanaan for refusing to yield to her desires.

David McVicar’s 2008 Salome is receiving its fourth revival. It is very typical of his oeuvre and so there is much nudity and much blood, but that is, for once, quite appropriate. Here Salome is the by-product of the moral ills of a hedonistic society. This moral lassitude, personified by her step-father Herod and her mother Herodias, has created the psychotic persona of Salome. Having been a victim of abuse and her own insatiable passions, this young girl’s rejection by the prophet Jokanaan triggers her descent to madness and death.

The rehearsal period of the original staging was the topic of TV’s The South Bank Show and apparently McVicar and his set and costume designer Es Devlin were inspired by the 1975 Pasolini movie Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (based on the Marquis de Sade novel). That is a similar mix of the political intrigues of the time, sadism, sexual depravity and child abuse. Forget entirely the TV series Downton Abbey, but this is a similar upstairs-downstairs idea set in a wealthy palace somewhere else in Europe on the cusp of World War II. The stage is split horizontally in two. A party is taking place ‘upstairs’, while Jokanaan is imprisoned in a cellar below the shabby ‘downstairs’ servants’ quarters. Clearly this is a decadent society on the verge of total collapse – one whose time will soon be up.

For the pivotal ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, we are shown a seven rooms from Salome’s memories, these ‘reveal’ a series of potent images evoking her sexual abuse by Herod. The subsequent stunning use of nudity does not involve Salome but it is the menacing executioner (Duncan Meadows) who is shown body-painted with blood. The final scene between Salome and the severed head of Jokanaan is rather conventional – though I doubt anything different could made of it. Bárbera Lluch is credited as ‘revival director’ but with McVicar himself in the opera house preparing a new production of Les Troyens, it is unlikely he would have totally ignored what was happening to his Salome: overall its 100 minutes created a very strong impression.

For me the most dubious element of Strauss’s Salome is not its eroticism or necrophilia but the inability of his music to convince me whether there is anything he actually disapproves of in the story. Perhaps worst of all there is the caricature of four bickering Jews (seemingly straight out of modern Woody Allen film) who are having a theological argument about the fate of the prisoner that verges on anti-Semitism. I am not even convinced how strongly Strauss feels about Jokanaan as he has him droning on with his incessant sermonising for half of his role from the cistern he is confined to. Never is there any blame evident in the music, so much so that when Herod orders the death of the monstrous girl who has kissed the lips of the prophet’s decapitated head, the chords describe the execution, but do not condemn. But these are all philosophical matters that often need to be addressed with Strauss; however it didn’t seem to matter so much on this occasion.

Unfortunately there have been many more charismatic Jokanaans than Egins Silinš, who despite a suitably robust voice seemed little more than a subsidiary character in the action that evolved around him. Once the setting became familiar many of the other lesser characters actually just stood around watching to leave the three most important ones, Herodias, Salome and Herod, centre-stage in what became little more than a costumed semi-staging.

Really the way it turned out the opera should have been renamed Herod, so potently did Stig Andersen sing this role that is usually reserved for a character tenor or heldentenor in vocal decline. Andersen, though far from the slim Siegfried of years past, still sings Tristan – and sounds as though he can still sing it well – so here his Herod was little more than a disreputable Tristan, but very good he was performing it like that. Often sitting right in the middle of the action (such as it was) I found it impossible not to focus my attention on him when he was onstage. Rosalind Plowright’s imperious presence and voice was mightily impressive as Herodias, his haughty scheming wife. The elegant tenor Will Hartmann made much of the short but very important role of Narraboth, the deluded captain who stabs himself in deepest despair over his infatuation for Salome and the rest of cast shone in the scraps of music Strauss allots to them.

Angela Denoke’s Salome first appears in a slinky, silver gown and whilst never the young girl of the biblical story, she portrays what McVicar asks of her very well and is quite believable. However her singing, though mostly secure, never has the freedom this role demands and perhaps it is wise she will not now be attempting Brünnhilde at Bayreuth in 2013.

Best of all was Andris Nelsons and the outstanding Royal Opera House orchestra whose symphonic-like accompaniment would have been worth listening to even without the voices. Along with Semyon Bychkov, Nelsons seems to be another conductor intent on showing his credentials to the powers-that-be at Covent Garden as a potential successor to Pappano as music director when he eventually moves on. There was a wonderful rhapsodic intensity to his account that brought out all the shimmering quasi-Wagnerian colours in the score. With his energetic yet elastic conducting, Nelsons seems to have an ability to make familiar music sound new and for whatever reason, this Salome was unlike any other I have previously heard. Actually its innate late-romanticism was often at odds with the unpleasant story and McVicar’s brutal stage imagery.

Jim Pritchard