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<em>Salome</em>, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
10 Jan 2018

Salome at the Royal Opera House

In De Profundis, his long epistle to ‘Dear Bosie’, Oscar Wilde speaks literally ‘from the depths’, incarcerated in his prison cell in Reading Gaol. As he challenges the young lover who has betrayed him and excoriates Society for its wrong and unjust laws, Wilde also subjects his own aesthetic ethos to some hard questioning, re-evaluating a life lived in avowal of the amorality of luxury and beauty.

Salome, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Malin Byström (Salome)

Photo credit: Clive Barda


Wilde had also plunged the depths six years earlier, in his play Salomé, originally written in French (to both evade the censors and acknowledge the influence of Flaubert), in which he transferred subversion from page to stage - peeling back the skin of Beauty to reveal lurid degradation and moral decay, even while his text aspired to ‘the decorative conditions that each art requires for its perfection’ (‘The Critic as Artist’).

Though Wilde professed, in De Profundis, that he did not ‘regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure’, he did recognise that alongside an image of ‘Pleasure that liveth for a moment’ one has to make the image of the ‘Sorrow that abideth for ever’, explaining that this was ‘one of the refrains whose recurring motifs make Salomé so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad’.

Richard Strauss’s Salome might similarly be considered an essay in the aesthetics of transgression. Indeed, David McVicar’s ROH staging revived here, for the third time (revival director, Bárbata Lluch), certainly lures us to some dark places. The ‘decorative’ is all too obviously sullied. Es Devlin’s art deco staircase may curve gracefully but it carries Herod and his court from the banqueting room - the split-level set affords just a glimpse of lavish luxury - to the basement, where stained ceramics, ugly latrines and languid naked bodies, all bathed in a green-tinged patina, reek of moral bankruptcy. We’ve slipped down a staircase from ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ to chaos.

One thing that struck me about this production, which I didn’t remark last time round, is just how ‘still’ this subterranean dystopia is. Soldiers, Jews, Nazarenes, elegantly pose, the mix of fascination and revulsion with which they evidently regard Salome’s increasing mania and vulgarity mimicking our own voyeuristic bewitchment and absorption. Even Herod and Herodias remain seated through Salome’s degenerate display. With Jokanaan constrained by chains and cell walls, the only figure who emanates a life force is Salome herself. A what a terrible force that is, one which, as it escalates, devours itself - until the cathartic release of Salome’s execution, when Naaman (Duncan Meadows) brutally snaps her neck at Herod’s hysterical command, “Kill that woman!” And, so, with Salome’s death, we have relief but also despair: those that remain are the living dead.

Bystrom 1.jpg Malin Byström (Salome). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

In the title role, Malin Byström conveyed not only Salome’s appalling moral degeneracy and self-consuming, obsessive desire, but also the grace and beauty which have so entranced Narraboth and Herod. Though pale, in a silver satin gown, she alone gleams in this underground abyss. Byström moves with physical eloquence: a litheness that somehow conveys both child-like unselfconsciousness and burgeoning sexual awareness. Even after her sudden recognition of her sensual and sexual self, this Salome remains a ‘child’ in her utter obliviousness of the moral consequences, to others and herself, of her actions and commands. When she holds the prophet's head aloft and entreats, ‘Why don’t you look at me, Jokanaan?’, we feel anger, frustration, despair and pity: she is utterly lost in her delusion. Byström does not have a weighty dramatic voice, though it is rich and luxurious in the middle, and she paced this performance sensibly. Perhaps in subsequent performances in the run, she might give even more during her confrontations with Jokanaan and Herod. And, if she does lack the power at the top that would capture the irresistible hypnotical assault of sensual indulgence then the relative lightness of her lyric soprano did initially lessen Salome’s vulgarity. She held nothing back in the terrifying final scene though, vocally or dramatically, as her fatal obsession consumed and destroyed her.

Jokanaan and Salome.jpgMichael Volle (Jokanaan) and Malin Byström (Salome). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

I still don’t understand the ‘message’ that McVicar’s ‘Seven Veils’ dance is supposed to communicate. As Herod followed Salome through a series of doorways and a video backdrop displayed a naked back, an exploding lightbulb and other seemingly disconnected images, I assumed as before that there was some Freudian intent. But, surely the stripping of the seven veils symbolises the shedding of appearances and illusions - Wilde’s ‘decorations’ or poetic ornamentation? That, in dancing Salome reveals for Herod the ‘self’ that she wants Jokanaan - who does not desire to know who she is, will not look at or listen to her - to be forced to acknowledge.

Michael Volle Barda.jpgMichael Volle (Jokanaan). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Tenor Michael Volle has a colossal voice and presence, both of which convey a sensuality of which the prophet is himself aware. This Jokanaan imposed his righteousness formidably and fearsomely, but we are aware of his fragilities too. His religious proclamations rang resonantly from his cell, almost as if he offered them as resistance to the desire which Salome had incited.

John Daszak successfully captured the conflicted king’s depravity and dismay, though he didn’t quite sail through the higher lying lines. The full-voiced Michaela Schuster was terrific as Herodias: singing with strength and smoothness, the queen was vulgar but not to excess, her horror at her daughter’s demise skilfully nuanced.

Daszak and Schuster .jpgJohn Daszak (Herod) and Michaela Schuster (Herodias). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

I confess that though they were sung with uniform competence, the minor roles did not make much of an impression. Partly this is a consequence of the lack of movement that I mentioned above. Even David Philip Butt, whom I greatly admired in Glyndebourne’s recent touring production of Hamlet, seemed uncharacteristically muted.

In the pit, Henrik Nánási prioritised lucidity over luxuriousness, initially at least. There was some wonderfully pristine delineation of Strauss’s coloristic poeticism, but it was not until the final thirty minutes or so that the score began to complement, or even drive, the surfeit of sensuality and sickness that erupts on stage. However, McVicar’s production again proved its power to stir up an odour of moral squalor and dissipation that lingers pungently and ineradicably.

Claire Seymour

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome - Malin Byström, Jokanaan - Michael Volle, Herod - John Daszak, Herodias - Michaela Schuster, Narraboth - David Butt Philip, Page of Herodias - Christina Bock, First Jew - Dietmar Kerschbaum, Second Jew - Paul Curievici, Third Jew - Hubert Francis, Fourth Jew - Konu Kim. Fifth Jew - Jeremy White, First Soldier - Levente Páll. Second Soldier - Alan Ewing, First Nazarene - Kihwan Sim, Second Nazarene - Dominic Sedgwick, Cappadocian - John Cunningham, Naaman - Duncan Meadows; Director - David McVicar, Revival director - Bárbara Lluch, Conductor - Henrik Nánási, Designer - Es Devlin, Lighting designer - Wolfgang Göbbel, Choreography and movement - Andrew George, Revival choreographer - Emily Piercy, Video designer - 59 Productions, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 8th January 2018.

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