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Angela Denoke as Salome [Photo © ROH 2012 / Clive Barda]
04 Jun 2012

Salome, Royal Opera

In David McVicar’s staging of Strauss’s disturbing opera, first seen at Covent Garden in 2008 and now enjoying its second revival, Salome’s descent down the Stygian staircase is a literal drop into a subterranean slaughterhouse and an ethical fall into the delights and depravity of her of burgeoning yet deadly sexuality.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome: Angela Denoke; Jokanaan: Egils Silins; Narraboth: Will Hartmann; Herod: Stig Andersen; Herodias: Rosalind Plowright; First Soldier: Scott Wilde; Second Soldier: Alan Ewing; First Jew: Peter Bronder; Second Jew: Hubert Francis; Third Jew: Timothy Robinson; Fourth Jew: Pablo Bemsch; Fifth Jew: Jeremy White; First Nazarene: Andrew Greenan; Second Nazarene: ZhengZhong Zhou; Page: Sarah Castle; Cappadocian: John Cunningham; Slave: Madeleine Pierard. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Director: David McVicar. Revival Director: Bárbara Lluch. Designer: Es Devlin. Lighting design: Wolfgang Göbbel. Choreography: Andrew George. Revival Choreographer: Emily Piercy. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday, 31 May 2012.

Above: Angela Denoke as Salome

Photos © ROH 2012 / Clive Barda

 

This is a Salome who is less interested in the bodily pleasures offered by the pure masculinity of Jokanaan than in the narcissistic celebration of her own vicious carnality. And, Angela Denoke is just the singer-actress to convey the princess’s escalating self-awareness and indulgence in emotional extremities. Denoke, returning as Salome after her performance in the production’s 2010 revival, may not have had the requisite consistent sheen at the top, and indeed may have struggled at times to hit the uppermost notes truly and securely — who wouldn’t given the unalleviated high tessitura? — but she possesses an emotional sincerity, communicated through an infinite variety of colours, shades and shadows, which wins the hearts and minds of the audience. Slightly tense at the start, she went from strength to strength: the final statement of her insistent demand, “Give me the head of Jokanaan”, was truly chilling in its honest exposure of human egoism; and in the final scene, as she cradled the bloodied head of the prophet, at times tender, then terrifyingly solipsistic, she communicated powerfully the destructive yet vulnerable self-regard of the eponymous anti-heroine before her thankfully inevitable death.

SALOME 120528_0202.pngStig Andersen as Herod and Rosalind Plowright as Herodias

As the ill-fated prophet, subjected to incarceration in the unfathomable depths of Herod’s subterranean prison, Egils Silins’ bass has the necessary biblical profundity to lend sonorous weight and resonance to his visionary pronouncements, which rise through the black grid of internment like clarion calls to humanity in the face of the wickedness to which it has submitted. Unfortunately, his perhaps understandably self-absorbed characterisation resulted in absolutely no erotic tension between Silins and Denoke; nor a real sense of the prophetic power which might strike such fear in the heart of Herod. And, as Jokanaan strode back and forth across the stage, fleeing Salome’s flirtatious advances, one wondered why the guards melodramatically traced his movements with their rifles given Herod’s command that the prophet must not be harmed. Surely none would risk such suicidal recklessness?

Stig Anderson, as Herod, used his resonance and power intelligently. There was no doubting his stentorian dominance and brutality when he unleashed his full force, but elsewhere his weak hesitancy was effectively conveyed.

Rosalind Plowright was a persuasive, vocally secure Herodias, sufficiently sumptuous to make her a convincing object of Herod’s desire, but not afraid to add a touch of roughness or harsh extremity to convey the Queen’s desperation to maintain her husband’s admiring gaze and her delight in capitalising on his weakness. Her relationship with her daughter was appropriately ambiguous.

The minor roles were performed with uniform accomplishment. The beautiful warmth of tone of Will Hartman’s Narraboth poignantly conveyed the purity of his transfixion in the face of Salome’s beauty; indeed, the understated portrayal of his death seemed a dramatic injustice. As the First and Second Soldiers, Scott Wilde and Alan Ewing were resonant and clear; similarly, Peter Bronder, as the first Jew, and Andrew Greenan, as the first Nazarene, were vocally and dramatically compelling.

SALOME 120528_0145.pngEgils Silins as Jokanaan and Angela Denoke as Salome

Andris Nelsons conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a thrilling, precise yet disquieting rendition of Strauss’s provocatively extrovert score. Solo lines emerged effortlessly from the luxuriant orchestral canvas. The seductive harmonies which foreshadow Rosenkavier — employed therein to depict exuberant sexual freedom, piquant desire and joyful satisfaction — were here bitterly destabilized by disconcerting instrumental colours textures and extremity of register, which Nelsons exploited to perfection. The conductor perfectly balanced measure and excess, liberation and control. His ability to restrain his naturally exuberant forces until precise moments of erotic release was nowhere more evident than in the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Oddly, here, McVicar eschews an erotic depiction of Salome’s growing appreciation of the power ordained by her beauty and nascent sexuality; rather we have a series of remarkably chaste, dream-like tableaux as Salome is relentlessly pursued through a series of chambers by Herod, her movements and gestures suggestive of an increasing interiority and introspection (à la Freud?). That is, until the final image portentous of imminent — or retrospective — rape.

There are many McVicarian clichés — gratuitous nudity, excessive blood-letting etc. etc. — but, while some have found some aspects of the production (the Nazi uniforms of the subterranean warders, for example) unduly specific and contradictory to Wilde’s somewhat stylised, even mythic, timelessness, to me they seemed true to the era in which Strauss composed his opera — when man’s appalling sadism was shortly to be revealed in its full horror. Es Devlin’s split-level designs — we are afforded glimpse of blasé banqueting diners loftily removed from the debasing debauchery below — effectively intimate the hypocrisy of the indifferent, and the shared culpability of all mankind. And, at the close, even the naked executioner Naaman (Duncan Meadows) is unable to overcome his disgust and turns his back upon the repellently orgasmic Salome, until required to fulfil Herod’s command to “Kill that woman!”; savagely breaking her neck, he conveniently relieves our own disgust and, thankfully, breaks our hypnotic absorption with Salome’s repulsive yet mesmerising self-glorification.

To some extent it is probably true that modern opera audiences, immune to the gore, nudity, depravity and gratuitous degeneracy regularly served up by directors, are largely unshockable. Yet, this listener for one experienced nauseating terror in the face of the dreadfulness of Wilde’s and Strauss’s disclosure of humanity’s inhumanity; a terror resulting less from the gruesome specificity of McVicar’s reading than from its suggestion of man’s ubiquitous amorality and cruelty — rendered supremely, and ironically, by Strauss’s painfully beautiful musical portrait.

Claire Seymour

SALOME 120528_0320.pngAngela Denoke as Salome, Stig Andersen as Herod and Rosalind Plowright as Herodias

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