30 Sep 2018

ENO's Salome both intrigues and bewilders

Femme fatale, femme nouvelle, she-devil: the personification of patriarchal castration-anxiety and misogynistic terror of female desire.

It’s not surprising that a twenty-first-century opera director might want to find ways of re-imagining Salome which do not simply reproduce fin-de-si├Ęcle obsessions and neuroses. Adena Jacobs’s new production for English National Opera eschews the quivering sensuousness of Flaubert, Huysmans, Moreau, Beardsley, Wilde, Klimt et al - overlooking, in so doing, Richard Strauss’s own chromatic writhing and lurid orchestrations - and replaces their visual and literary lavishness with defiant feminist imagery. Barbies and Bronies both take a bashing, as this insolent teenager in black leather hot pants gives as good a gaze as she gets, wielding a phallic baton in brutal defiance and steely self-definition.

Salome-by-Ella-Ferris-Pell.jpgElla Ferris Pell - Salome. Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Jacobs isn’t the first to attempt, as Lawrence Kramer puts it, ‘to appropriate the Salome complex on Salome’s behalf’. [1] Kramer draws attention to a portrait of Salome which the American artist Ella Ferris Pell exhibited in 1890 and which Bram Dijkstra reproduces on the cover of his book Idols of Perversity, citing Dijkstra’s suggestion that, ‘Pell's Salome makes a revolutionary statement by being nothing but the realistic portrait of a young, strong, radiantly self-possessed woman who looks upon the world around her with confidence … [Such a woman] was far more threatening, far more a visual declaration of defiance against the canons of male dominance than any of the celebrated vampires and viragoes created by turn-of-the-century intellectuals could ever have been.’

Dijkstra’s words largely seem to sum up the intentions of Jacobs and designer Marg Horwell in their feminist commandeering of Strauss’s opera, though of course the twenty-first-century context supplies its own particular imagery. We begin in near-darkness, Stuart Jackson’s Narraboth yearningly proclaiming his obsessive love for the beautiful princess of Judaea, surrounded by a crowd of fellow-fans and Instagram-followers who, confined within a roped-off enclave, await the arrival of their idol. Above is suspended what at first seems to be a fish-tank, though grainy glimpses of the sinuous movements of a woman bathing gradually come into semi-focus.

At last, Salome herself becomes visible through the blackness. She watches herself being watched. Given what will follow, perhaps she should have learned a lesson from the long list of troubled, contemporary ‘celebrities’ who have found, with sometimes tragic consequences, that though playing with one’s public personae gives illusions of control, it’s not so easy to exorcise patriarchy and find one’s authentic self.

David Soar.jpgDavid Soar (Jokanaan). Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Indeed, out of the blackness, via a reverberant loud-speaker, come the stirring warnings of David Soar’s resonant and arresting Jokanaan. Allison Cook’s Salome is drawn like a fly to an electric zapper and descends to the Baptist’s den of incarceration. Only the feet of the filthy prisoner are visible, protruding from a grubby tarpaulin - presumably preventing the prophet from being fried alive by the fierce lights burning above him. His feet are crushed into shocking pink stilettos and his mouth, so feared by Herod, so fetishized by Salome, is magnified on the rear wall. When he staggers from beneath his protective sheet we see that a pin-hole camera is strapped to Jokanaan’s face - a sort of scold’s bridle - relaying projections of the potent orifice.

The portentous confrontation between redeemer and radical unfolds: as Salome luxuriates in her desires, Narraboth circles with a video camera - presumably for up-loading to YouTube - before killing himself. Slipping her feet into Jokanaan’s stilettos, Salome indulges in some necrophiliac writhing on the Syrian guard. She had unwound her clothing, to bare her flesh; now, Jokanaan unties the bandage on his wrist in order to shield his eyes from such debauchery.

Michael Colvin (c) Catherine Ashmore (1).jpgMichael Colvin (Herod). Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Leaving the prison to return to Herod’s ‘pleasure’ palace, we find the monarch frolicking with four nymphs in shiny nude leotards. Dressed in a be-jewelled wrestler’s suit, grubby boxer shorts and Santa coat, Michael Colvin is a ‘Mad King’ indeed. Desperate, debauched and deluded, he makes George III look a picture of mental and physical health. His ‘courtiers’ sit on the side-lines, aptly dressed in blue surgical gowns and gloves - they are going to have to do the clearing up, after all. Herod slithers in Narraboth’s blood; a rosy My Little Pony is decapitated, disembowelled and hoisted aloft, its mane hanging limply as its floral entrails spill across the stage. In the face of such dysfunctionality, the eloquent pleas of the Nazarenes (Robert Winslade Anderson and Adam Sullivan) are as impotent as the knock-kneed Herod. Herodias (Susan Bickley) wraps herself in a net-curtain which has been pulled down to reveal a blindfolded Saint Sebastian-cum-David Bowie.

Susan Bickley Herodias.jpgSusan Bickley (Herodias). Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

I confess that, by this point, I was suffering from an overload of the absurd. I hoped that some sense of ‘purpose’ or context would arise from the Dance of the Seven Veil’s and Salome’s final monologue: the still points at which Salome is the focus of our own voyeurism. Allison Cook is a terrific singing-actor and she has all the notes in her arsenal, if not quite the gloss that might outshine the instrumental excess.

But, her Salome doesn’t so much as dance as pose languidly and grasp a baseball bat, appropriating phallic authority. Having discarded her Barbie-doll candy-pink sweatshirt and whipped off her blond wig to reveal a power-haircut, she slides up the pony’s belly and revels in its ripe intestines. Four dancers - Essex-scrapes, black football shorts, sequinned head-dresses - jerk and twerk.

ENO Salome dancers and Allison Cooke (c) Catherine Ashmore (2) (1).jpgEnsemble dancers and Allison Cook (Salome). Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Jacobs believes that the dance is not a ‘true unveiling or an expression of the soul. It is a dance constructed for Herod’s gaze … On this night, Salome subverts the dance for her own gain, she uses it to radicalise herself’. It is not mystical, she declares, but ‘an escalation of her power, a ritualistic dance for the head of Jokanaan, an act of ritual preparation.’ Well, the notion that women can subvert the patriarchal, scopophiliac gaze is nothing new; even Flaubert suggested that Salome usurped power, that her movements evaded male determination: ‘With her eyes half-closed she twisted her body backwards and forwards, making her belly rise and her breasts quiver, while her face remained expressionless and her feet never stopped moving … From her arms, her feet, and her clothes there shot out invisible fire.’ But, what if there is no ‘movement’: can her dance still empower? Though conductor Martyn Brabbins drew radiant silk and riotous sleaze from the ENO Orchestra, I was unable to make sense of the schism that opened between visual image and musical motion.

Having turned all male heads, Salome then topples them. And, it is the severed head - in Wilde’s play, this is a magisterial and monstrous Medusa - that ultimately draws our gaze. But, Jacobs doesn’t give us a head, only a lumpen white plastic bag. This makes a nonsense of the text and psychology of the monologue - ‘If you had looked at me, you would have loved me’, she sings to the severed gore, desperate to command Jokanaan’s gaze.

ENO Salome final scene.jpgAllison Cook (Salome’s monologue). Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

One thinks again of Pell’s portrait of Salome with its empty platter. Is this Jacobs’s design: if there is no head then our gaze remains fixed on Salome herself and thus the patriarchy does not re-exert its power? The director’s final image is equivocal: a flower-bordered black-hole, framing the bandage-eyed Bowie look-a-like; is this a mouth, a vulva, or what Elena Manafi (Senior Tutor/Programme Director PsychD In Psychotherapeutic and Counselling Psychology at the University of Surrey) describes in her programme article as ‘the abyss of the feminine’? Jacobs, it would appear, wants to turn Salome’s pathological narcissism into a ‘victory’, but her Salome is figuratively blinded by solipsism: and, spoiler alert, literally blinded by her mother’s hands which shroud her eyes from the truth that the lips she kisses are not Jokanaan’s - he’s still in the plastic bag - but Herodias’s own? Aren’t there enough Freudian threads in this tale already …

Allison Cook dance.jpgAllison Cook (Salome). Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

This Salome ends as the protagonist places a phallic gun in her mouth. Manafi argues that ‘Destruction becomes a form of liberation’, and that although Salome’s attempts to master and manipulate the male gaze have been ‘nothing but mimicry’ of patriarchal dynamics, her final act is an ‘outburst of violence that constitutes her emancipation’. But, Jacobs and Manafi seem to have forgotten that there is a theatrical audience: she becomes a prey to our gaze. As scholar Peter Conrad has observed, ‘Salome ceases to be a character and becomes an image, and opera turns simultaneously into a symphonic poem, into a ballet, and into a painting’. [2]

Jacobs allows for equivocation. But Angela Carter did just this nearly forty years ago, in the stories of The Bloody Chamber where the fantastical allows women to embrace their inner ‘darkness’: some critics argue that the female ‘victims’ of Carter’s fairy-tales become gradually empowered by embracing desire and passion as a human animal, others that Carter envisages women’s sensuality simply as a response to male arousal and that her tales can only reproduce patriarchal values rather than modify or shatter them.

Jacobs gives us arresting and intriguing visual images, but her Salome is smorgasbord of ideas and theories. Narraboth’s blood and the pony’s entrails are too slippery to tie the tableaux together.

Claire Seymour

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome - Allison Cook, Jokanaan - David Soar, Herod - Michael Colvin, Herodias - Susan Bickley, Narraboth - Stuart Jackson, Nazarenes - Robert Winslade Anderson/Adam Sullivan, Herodias’s Page - Clare Presland, Soldiers - Simon Shibambu/Ronald Nairne, A Cappadocian - Trevor Eliot Bowes, Slave - Ceferina Penny, Jews - Daniel Norman/ Christopher Turner/Amar Muchhala/Alun Rhys-Jenkins/Jonathan Lemalu; Director - Adena Jacobs, Conductor - Martyn Brabbins, Designer - Marg Horwell, Lighting Designer - Lucy Carter, Choreographer - Melanie Lane, Orchestra of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Friday 28th September 2018.



[1] Lawrence Kramer, ‘Culture and musical hermeneutics: The Salome complex’, Cambridge Opera Journal Vol.2, No.3 (November 1990): 269—94

[2] Peter Conrad, Romantic Opera and Literary Form (Berkeley, 1981), p.154.