Opera North’s Concert Salome carries Theatrical Power

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Salome: Soloists and Orchestra of Opera North, Leeds / Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor), Leeds Town Hall, Leeds, 19.4.2018. (JL)

Jennifer Holloway as Salome (c) Robert Workman

Salome – Jennifer Holloway
Herodes – Arnold Bezuyen
Herodias – Katarina Karnéus
Jokanaan – Robert Hayward
Narraboth – Oliver Johnston
Page – Heather Lowe
First Nazarene – Dean Robinson
Second Nazarene – Alexander Banfield
First Soldier – Richard Mosley-Evans
Second Soldier – Jihoon Kim
First Jew – Adrian Dwyer
Second Jew – John Findon
Third Jew – Stuart Laing
Fourth Jew – Nicholas Watts
Fifth Jew – Jihoon Kim
A Cappadocian – Gordon D. Shaw
A slave – Alexander Banfield

Concert Staging – PJ Harris

Opera North received plaudits for its powerful concert hall, semi-staged version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and many people, including myself, did not miss the trappings of the theatre. However, it did have back projections and was more dramatised than this version of Salome that was closer to a concert performance. As a result, there were moments that suffered from the lack of colour, scenery and action of a true theatrical staging. Nevertheless, the opera has one of the most astonishing orchestral scores in all opera and if you close your eyes it’s all there. The late conductor Norman del Mar described this intense one act piece as a ‘stage tone poem’, suggesting the primacy of the instrumental sound picture yet without a convincing actor/singer in the lead role the orchestra alone would not save the day.

But where do you find a soprano who can convince as a teenage girl with her hormones out of control, who can make men from common soldier to king go weak at the knees, has already learned the power of sexual attraction and how to use it for manipulative gain; a singer who has supreme acting skills, is an expert dancer with a figure to match, has a voice of seductive lyricism that also has the power to ride over Strauss’s massive orchestra, and has the stamina to survive the vocal ordeal from entrance to curtain without rest?

American soprano Jennifer Holloway has the necessary vocal and physical allure. Strauss uses musical motives that describe the character from flighty to sensual to romanticised passion and Holloway reflects these, both with voice and body language in her portrayal, even within the limited scope of a platform performance. She benefits from experience too, having had the distinction of singing the role in Dresden, the city where Salome was premiered in 1905 and where the opera succeeded in offending on so many fronts that it was thereafter banned in many other cities.

The object of Salome’s desire, the mysterious holy man Jokanaan (John the Baptist), is locked out of sight in a dungeon when Salome asks, ‘This prophet, is he old and grey?’ One of the guards replies, ‘No, he is still quite young’. Veteran baritone Robert Hayward may not fulfill the youth credentials but he has a commanding voice and stage presence, well conveying the obsessed seer who bangs on pompously about the coming of the Son of Man and the necessity of uprooting all evil and teaching ‘the race of women never to venture on the path of corruption’.

King Herod is also obsessed. He has an anxiety complex that makes him fearful of Jokanaan’s holy powers, and a sexual fixation on Salome, his stepdaughter who also happens to be his niece. Arnold Bezuyen acted out his jitteriness, suitably portraying an unstable man with dangerous powers at his disposal. His fine tenor voice was perhaps a little light in coping with the might of Strauss’s orchestra.

Herodias, Herod’s second wife, has passed manipulative genes to her daughter who she uses to taunt her husband. Katerina Karnéus, last seen at Opera North in Wagner’s Ring as Fricka, another domineering wife, helped to round off the uncomfortable picture of a dysfunctional family indulging in a petulant row.

Oliver Johnstone is a young tenor who is building his career and although he started to prove his credentials as Narraboth, the character is killed off early on. The incident highlighted a disadvantage of the concert setting. Narraboth, who has his own obsession with Salome, is tasked with guarding Jokaanan but disobeys orders in allowing him out of the cistern to meet Salome’s demand. Horrified at what he has unleashed as he witnesses Salome trying to seduce the prophet he, according to stage direction, steps between them and stabs himself to death, falling at the feet of the object of his desire. In a stroke of Wildean black humour Salome fails to notice. In this performance the coup de théâtre is jettisoned altogether as Narraboth quietly leaves the stage.

Fortunately, Oliver Johnstone gets a second chance as he returns as one of the five holy Jews who embark on a furious argument on a tiny point of doctrine. Strauss used the opportunity to create a searing satire on such activity in a whirlwind passage of contrapuntal and cross rhythmic complexity that builds into a massive climax. It carries with it the frisson of the possibility of the musical train going off the rails which apparently it did on one occasion under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. Sir Richard Armstrong, however, was a steady hand on the helm, a true Kapellmeister with nearly five decades of operatic experience. He kept the orchestra under sufficient control allowing the singers to be heard (‘never look at the brass’, Strauss advised conductors, ‘it only encourages them’). In spite of this there was often insufficient string power to do justice to Strauss’s soaring lines. The reason may have been acoustical, relating to the positioning of the players, the strings flat on the stage with the heavier brigades raked higher up. Those in the stalls, like myself were therefore more likely to be disadvantaged.

Armstrong paced the evening well. After a tentative start things gradually warmed up via the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ which was left to the orchestra alone and the imagination of the audience, and headed inexorably to the devastating conclusion which is Salome’s gratification at reaching her goal, the kissing of the lips of Jokanaan. The severed head was imagined, not even mimed by Jennifer Holloway. She sang and acted the emotion throughout one of the greatest and most taxing of soprano soliloquies in all opera. She was supreme and thrilling in her delivery. As she sings her final notes the orchestra soars with passionate triumph then crashes onto what must surely be music’s most dramatic discord.

When Salome kisses the lips she says she wonders if the bitter taste is the taste of love. The poor girl has no idea of the relationship between lust and love. The tragedy is that she is not given the chance to find out as Herod, in his horror, has her killed. Thus two people destroy the objects of their desire. After being released from prison in 1897, and six years after Salome, Wilde wrote, The Ballad of Reading Gaol that contains the line, ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’.

John Leeman

Until 25 April, then touring to Perth, Gateshead, Liverpool, Salford, Hull, and Coventry until 16 May. For more information click here.

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