Salome, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, July 2010

The evening belonged to Angela Denoke in the title role, and Hartmut Haenchen in the pit, who drew a mixture of gentle lyricism and immense power from the orchestra. When Salome sings of kissing the lips on the severed head of the Baptist, the orchestra roars forth, and Ms. Denoke shows a sense of triumphalism rather than necrophilia in her tone and body language. I think this works, though I do prefer more of the mystery of Salome’s intense yearnings, expressed so well in the words Wilde puts in her mouth, that the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.

A far cry from the first London performance, photo by Clive Barda

For those unfamiliar with the original 1891 play — very recently performed at several theatres in England — a reduced version of its text provides the libretto for the opera. Oscar Wilde wrote the play in French for Sarah Bernhardt, but during rehearsals in London the next year, the Lord Chamberlain’s office banned it, and it did not appear in Britain at a public performance until 1931. In the meantime the opera was performed, conducted by Thomas Beecham.  This was to be in a Bowdlerized version, with the action taking place in Greece rather than Judaea. Among various changes the silver platter containing the Baptist’s head was empty and covered in a cloth, and Salome’s claim of kissing his lips was converted to a desire to be his follower. Unfortunately for Beecham, the soprano forgot the changes and let rip with the original. I won’t repeat this well-known story, but refer to Beecham’s entertaining book A Mingled Chime.

photo by Clive Barda

In this 2008 production by David McVicar the action is set in twentieth century Germany between the wars, with the soldiers in Wehrmacht uniforms and Herod’s party in evening dress. The dance takes place through a series of moving doorways, and at one point when Salome puts on a long tutu, Herod dances with her. From the Amphitheatre the changing backdrops for the dance are only partly visible, which is unfortunate. One of these is a huge projection of a doll in a chair, matching the rag doll Salome plays with, and this is important because the doll imagery is recaptured at the end of the opera as the executioner breaks her body like a rag doll. He is there throughout the opera, but dressed in a cloak that he throws off when climbing down into the cistern to behead the Baptist, and once again Duncan Meadows performed this role to perfection, turning away in disgust during Salome’s performance with the head, while most of the cast simply stand and look on rather stupidly.

This revival was directed by Justin Way, and I particularly liked the way he made Narraboth, the captain of the guard, make desperate physical contact with Salome. His early suicide thus becomes more understandable than in other productions where he simply hangs in the background and kills himself. Here Andrew Staples plays him as a Shlemiel — I use the Yiddish term deliberately as the Jews are all dressed in kippahs and prayer shawls. There seems to me something rather unnatural about all this, and I dislike the gratuitous female nudity in a coldly lit basement. It does nothing to assist the warmth and obsessiveness of the music that speaks of a sultry night in the Middle East. Herod sings of the moon, yet the white light from above was very intense.

The Baptist grapples with Salome, photo by Clive Barda

The performance however was excellent. Johan Reuter sang the Baptist with emotional sincerity, grappling physically with Salome, and in this revival staying upright more than Michael Volle was permitted to do in the 2008 original. Gerhard Siegel was a fine Herod, showing impotence in the face of Salome, the same characteristic he showed as Mime in the face of Siegfried during his performances in the Ring three years ago. Irina Mishura looked gorgeous and sounded suitably imperious as Herodias, and I was particularly impressed by the bass power of Michael Courjal as the First Soldier. But it was Angela Denoke whose singing I found so strikingly good, and though I prefer a little more sexiness in the portrayal of Salome, particularly in the dance, this was a powerfully convincing performance. And then of course there was the huge orchestra, so brilliantly conducted by Hartmut Haenchen.

Performances continue until 16th July.

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