David McVicar's new production of Salome at the Royal Opera House sets itself an admirable challenge, that of updating Wilde and Strauss's retelling of the bible story into some time between the two World Wars. At times, there are some striking stage pictures but, ultimately, this production brings more in the way of inconsistencies than it does revelations.
In Es Devlin's design, the stage is split into three. Tucked away at the top, we have the lower part of a dining room; enough of a glimpse, from the stalls at least, to see Herod playing host to smartly dressed guests. Below is a large space which seems to serve as a shower room (hence the rather gratuitous nudity in the opening scene) and kitchen. The two spheres are linked by a large spiral staircase stage left where, as the curtain opens, a woman wearing only a girdle lies prostrate.
As far as an image of sordid degradation, it's a convincing tableau. And Joseph Kaiser's Narraboth, dressed in a military uniform, stumbles about it singing of Salome with affecting passion. Daniela Sindram as the page watches his every move but looks unconvincing in uniform and what looks like make-up applied to give her a five o'clock shadow. Vuyani Mlinde and Pumeza Matshikiza (both Jette Parker Young Artists), the Cappadocian and slave respectively, are dressed as kitchen skivvies. Other extras populate the stage, in various stages of undress. At one stage, the girl on the stairs is woken and brought upstairs to be ogled and fondled by the dinner guests.
It's a stage picture, though, that has little of the atmosphere suggested by either Strauss's score or Wilde's play. Although Wolfgang Göbbel's lighting gives us an approximation of moonlight coming down the stairs, there's no glimpse of the outdoors, and it seems like a half-hearted concession to the several evocative mentions of moonlight in the libretto. The rest of the set has a preponderance of dirty white tiles, dimly lit with artificial light; it overlooks what Hofmannsthal saw as the 'purple and violet' that defined the work, removing much of the suggestiveness that boosts its power to shock.
Wilde's play – whose translation into German by Hedwig Lachmann was set with only a few changes by Strauss – is so heavy with the images and language of an almost hallucinatory conception of the Orient that it fits very uncomfortably with the modern atmosphere created here. When Nadja Michael's Salome leaves the dinner upstairs and descends into the basement, she's dressed as a smart, sophisticated society girl. Yet no amount of sophistication hides the disturbing incongruity that when she opens her mouth, she sings in Wilde's heavily perfumed metaphors. When Jochanaan is brought up from the cistern, the prophet's words, despite being delivered with powerful conviction by Michael Volle in the vocal performance of the evening, similarly lack weight and resonance in this setting. Much of the potency of the opera derives from the fact that we and, to varying degrees those on stage, are meant to believe in his prophecies. In this distinctly godless environment, everything he says loses relevance. It's an effect exacerbated by his characterisation, as it appears in the programme, as a 'Beckettian tramp soaked in sewage'. His confrontations with Salome are directed with a lack of clarity so that it, on a couple of occasions, seemed even as though he was warming slightly to Salome's advances, undermining the whole basis of her attraction to him.
More questions were raised by the arrival of Herod and Herodias and their dinner guests. Although Robin Leggate, standing in for an indisposed Thomas Moser, acts with conviction, he comes across as a slightly camp caricature. He and the excellent Michaela Schuster as his wife spend much of the evening grabbing and groping those around them in an attempt to intensify the atmosphere of decadence but they are fighting a losing battle against the rest of the production. There's a class distinction between those upstairs and downstairs so the decision for the party to descend to the realm of the servants (where tables, chairs, rugs and wine are quickly set up for them) makes little sense. Similarly it's harder for us to believe that downstairs in an artificially lit, sanitised basement Herod is still to have his hallucinations of a cold wind enveloping him.
There is also a disturbing incongruity in having an interwar setting which seems to evoke a version of Germany, with soldiers dressed in what could well be Nazi uniforms, where a deranged potentate entertains five Jews for dinner. This setting could have been used to draw our attention to what several commentators see as the worryingly automatic caricature of the Jews Strauss creates in his score, or, more profoundly, to examine the parallels between the composer's supposed immorality in setting Wilde's play (surely somewhat over-egged by Guy Dammann in his programme essay) with the amorality of his conduct during the Third Reich. Additionally, Wilde and Strauss only have the Jews present at a party among many others; having them as a majority of the guests at a small dinner gives them an inappropriate significance.
Perhaps most perplexing of all is that after a first hour where the production provides few answers to the questions it asks, in the 'Dance of the Seven Veils' McVicar pulls out all the stops to engage and illuminate the audience. The stage suddenly dissolves to leave us with a series of dream-like sequences, realised with impeccable stylishness. Herod and Salome travel through these together with a weariness that suggests this is a joint ritual, rehearsed with tedious regularity, that has long lost its meaning. They pass from one room to another: there's a childish game with a rag-doll in one, a mirror and a veil in another. Salome strips off in the next, only to be helped back into a different white dress by Herod before they waltz together lazily against the projection of a chandelier. There's a room full of what look like wedding dresses before, finally, against a projection of a swinging light bulb, Salome throws water over herself from a surgical basin as the bulb smashes behind them.
Visually, and in isolation, this is an intriguing sequence and an interesting solution to the perennial challenge of staging this dance. I can only guess that it sets out to give psychological depth to the relationship between Herod and his step-daughter. However, the vagueness of the symbolism and the fact that it bears, as far as I can tell, no relation to any to the rest of the staging meant that it added very little to my experience as a whole. In fact, it broke up the momentum of the drama and, by replacing eroticism with indistinct psychology, diluted the two characters' motivation.
There is more arbitrary style over substance when Herod finally gives the order for Jochanaan to be decapitated. His wife runs across to strip the overcoat off the executioner who, inexplicably naked underneath, then descends to the cistern armed to do the deed. When he re-emerges, his naked body is smeared with blood; the head in one hand, the sword in the other. It's an image that's obviously designed to shock. However, it's the opera itself that should be shocking us; to an audience desensitized to nudity and gore, this image – gratuitous and manufactured – borders on the comic. Collecting her prize, Salome rubs herself up against the executioner's bloody body, her white robe also becoming smeared in blood. As she sings to the head, she clasps it, lies down beside it, stands threateningly over it. When she finally kisses the lips, she writhes on her back, holding it to her mouth with both hands in a moment which, to my relief, still managed to shock - more, I felt, despite the production than because of it.
Nadja Michael has sung the role several times now and definitely cuts a fine, elegant figure on stage; perhaps too elegant and knowing for the teenage princess. Vocally, though, there are problems. In the early scenes her acting went some way to cover up issues with intonation and there were several high notes which she hit spot on, producing a thrilling sound. However, the demands of the final scene were not always successfully met and several of the more lyrical phrases were undermined by some often very wayward tuning. Throughout her final scene, too, she often looked distracted, addressing the audience rather than the head, the object of her passion.
Musically, Philippe Jordan led a very finely controlled account of the score, allowing the singers space to be heard but letting the orchestra play out when they needed to. The orchestra warmed up after some shaky playing at the start, rather too many split notes from the trumpets in particular, and by the dance – including some delicious flute playing – were rising well to the challenge of Strauss's virtuoso score. The orchestra produced a convincing account of the great final scene, slightly mitigating the disappointment with what was on the stage.
In the past, McVicar has brought so much in the way of hidden darkness to many of his opera productions, yet here he struggles with a different sort of challenge: to stage an opera that is already probably the most shocking in the repertoire. Although his conception is executed with the customary flair and technical skill, it remains an essentially muddled and inconsistent view of the work. However, it's over a decade since Salome was performed at the Royal Opera House and the work itself remains as potent as ever. With Jordan's fine conducting and Michael Volle's imperious Jochanaan there's still much to enjoy.
By Hugo Shirley
Read our interview with Philippe Jordan on conducting Salome and his appointment as Musical Director of the Paris Opera here