ENO’s Cast Deserved Better Than This Incompetent, Incoherent Production of Salome

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Salome: Soloists, Orchestra of the English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). London Coliseum, 3.10.2018. (MB)

Allison Cooke (Salome) (c) Catherine Ashmore
Allison Cooke (Salome) (c) Catherine Ashmore

Narraboth – Stuart Jackson
Page – Clare Presland
Soldiers – Simon Shibambu, Ronald Nairne
Jokanaan – David Soar
Cappadocian – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Salome – Allison Cook
Slave – Ceferina Penny
Herod Antipas – Michael Colvin
Herodias – Susan Bickley
Jews – Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Jonathan
Nazarenes – Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan
Dancers – Corey Annand, Kazmin Borrer, Hannah Flynn, Iona Kirk, Nicle Neolove

Director – Adena Jacobs
Designs – Marg Horwell
Lighting – Lucy Carter, Sean Gleason
Choreography – Melanie Lane

Hmmm, oh dear. I think I might sometimes have been able to see what Adena Jacobs was trying to do in this new production of Salome. Who knows, though? I was clearly not its target audience, which would seem to have been an imaginary cohort of teenage girls viewed with extreme condescension and, doubtless, ‘concerned’ contempt. What I do know, however, is that its trashiness was exceeded only by its rank incompetence and incoherence. Quite how or why it was permitted to proceed anywhere near the London Coliseum’s stage without, at the very least, radical revision is perhaps the greatest of its mysteries.

It begins, if not promisingly, then at least within the realm of dreary cliché: dark, in what appears to be the queue to a nightclub. (Better not to ask too many questions: sadly, it will not be worth it.) That scene disappears, to be replaced by something else: unclear. Perhaps it was inside the club, although it did not really seem to be. People in all manner of peculiar outfits behave somewhat oddly, Jokanaan’s voice relayed quite unforgivably through strange electronic means so as to suggest that David Soar could not sing the role. (For the little while that he was on stage, it was perfectly clear that he could – and did.) For some reason, or none, his words are delivered via a huge video close up of his mouth. A dental surgery Salome: a concept of sorts, I suppose, but soon it is dead. Meanwhile, Salome runs around as if she were an extra hoping for more in a pop video. There is, I grant, the germs of a concept there; like everything else, it is not pursued. And so on, and so forth.

Later, however, the real extras appear, in the most embarrassing Dance of the Seven Veils anyone is, I trust, likely ever to see. Salome elects not to take part in that, instead engaging in what seems to be a concurrent one-woman game of rounders. Some smaller ‘twerking’ dancers do, however, gyrating with complete, tedious indifference to the music, to the drama, to everything. There are neither veils nor substitutes in sight. One can, I suppose, understand where such indifference was ‘coming from’. Before that, however, some gunge has been cast around the stage, as if in a half-hearted tribute to the late Keith Chegwin. Oh yes, lest one forget: an enormous headless horse – a reference to My Little Pony (?!) – has been hauled on stage, so that assorted people with nothing better to do may extract entrails from it and, well, sit on it for a while, looking bored. Herod on occasion slightly resembles the (mercifully) late Jimmy Savile: not, I think, by design. He too has a gameshow moment, when he writhes in that gunge: Narraboth’s blood, ‘supplied,’ I later read in the programme, ‘by Pigs Might Fly’. Quite. At the end, he commands her death, but nothing happens. He has long left the stage, and who can blame him? Instead, Salome, held by her mother, standing in front of a large black orifice – at least that symbolism is clear enough – shoots herself. The end.

By all means present an abused Salome – it is surely difficult not to – but please: do it better than this or not at all. At least connect something to something else, and perhaps listen a little to Strauss’s score. There is certainly greater craft in the orchestration of any single note, let alone chord, than in anything seen in this hapless farrago. The musicians on the evening deserved far, far better too. Allison Cook’s voice is perhaps not quite what one expects in the title role, the higher range a little high for comfort, but there was ample compensation with a committed dramatic performance and a richer than usual tone for her insistence on Jokanaan’s head. (I cannot remember the actual English translation, which did well, however much one heard the original in one’s head.) Michael Colvin’s Herod was certainly done no favours by the production, but he responded with great professionalism and artistry, as did Susan Bickley as Herodias. Stuart Jackson and Clare Presland likewise impressed in sensitive – especially given the context – performances, attentive to word and line, of Narraboth and Herodias’s Page. If the ENO Orchestra’s strings were sometimes a little thin of tone when compared to what a German opera-goer will hear in this music, there was also much to be gleaned from the orchestra’s transparency and incisiveness, Martyn Brabbins steering a wise, knowledgeable course through Strauss’s directed phantasmagoria.

Alas, such real virtues found themselves quite undone. This will sound banal; indeed, it surely is banal. Nevertheless, if you neither understand nor care for an opera, nor apparently for opera in general, would you not be better off leaving its direction it to someone who does? Perhaps you are actually a greater artist than Richard Strauss or Oscar Wilde: probably not, however. Both other stagings of Salome I have seen this year, from Romeo Castellucci in Salzburg and, especially, from Hans Neuenfels in Berlin, had much to say, much to suggest, and yes, much to beguile. Moreover, they offered much, again especially in Neuenfels’s case, to provoke. I appreciate that this production tried to do likewise. Trying, however, was all it proved ultimately to be.

Mark Berry

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