Reviewed by James Karas
The Royal Opera House has revived David McVicar’s 2008 production of Salome to good effect. McVicar shows originality, creativity and attention to detail that make established operas appear fresh and highly exciting.
The atmosphere of the current production done in modern dress (tuxedos, elegant gowns, khaki for the soldiers and traditional clothes for servants) ranges from a high-toned party thrown by Herod to the highly erotic and somewhat lewd atmosphere in the dungeon below where St. John the Baptist is guarded. More below.
We get a glimpse of the posh affair situated at the top of the stage and reached by a grand staircase on our right. The dungeon has exposed cement walls and a steel cover over the cistern in which Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned. All of the action of the opera takes place in the dungeon, of course, but McVicar and Designer Ed Devlin want us to know of the decadent world of Tetrarch Herod and his cronies.
Swedish soprano Malin Byström who has made a name as a lyric soprano tackled the dramatic role of Salome with superlative results. Salome is disgusted by the leering of her stepfather Herod (John Daszak) who killed her father and is married to her mother. And she has developed a passion for the imprisoned John the Baptist. The more he rejects her, the more impassioned she becomes and expresses her unrequited love for him with ever-increasing ferocity. Byström has a plush and powerful voice and the ability to confront all these vocal and acting demands.
She gives a magnificent performance of the power of irrational love that has taken a grip over her. She agrees to dance for Herod provided he will give her whatever she wants. Here is the disappointing part of the evening. Malin Byström can’t dance. She runs across the stage, she twirls a veil and dances a few steps with Herod. Even imaginative video projections can’t hide the fact that she is not a good dancer and all we can do is settle for Strauss’s music. McVicar wants us to believe that this is a journey into Salome’s past and her troubled childhood that traumatized her. OK. Good try.
Tenor John Daszak looked hormonally possessed and menacing as he tried to seduce Salome and was forced to promise “anything” to the more powerfully possessed Salome. The matronly and fine-voiced Herodias of Michaela Schuster suffered the double humiliation of being thrown over and for her daughter at that.
Powerhouse singing is required from the Baptist and Michael Volle provided the requisite vocal ammunition. Looking like a wild man, he heaps scorn on all the sinners who are not aware that the Son of God is on earth. He is especially vehement towards Salome which increases her obsession and the tension between the two. Volle dominates the stage when he is singing and makes a superb duo with Byström.
McVicar is attracted by the contrast between the coarse and the genteel. While the sophisticated party is going on above in Herod’s quarters, we see a nude woman in the dungeon who appears scantily dressed a number of times. There is an Executioner (Duncan Meadows) who looks like Atlas holding the world in his powerful hands and he is buck naked. All of which pales in comparison with the ultimate scene where Salome fulfils her sexual passion for the Baptist by kissing his severed head on the lips.
David Butt Philp sings a delicate Narraboth who is in love with Salome. Louise Armit sings the role of Herodias’s slave who is in love with Narraboth. They are small roles but McVicar makes the most of them.
Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to great effect with Strauss’s commanding and very difficult music.
Salome by Richard Strauss opened on January 8 and will be performed seven tomes until January 30, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.