It may not matter a great deal in the large scheme of things, but I am puzzled by an arguably small change between Richard Strauss' score of Salome and stage director David McVicar's realisation. In the score the executioner is not listed among the roles although he is referred to in the German stage directions (at rehearsal figure 300) as the Henker – hangman in English – who is given Herod's ring of death as a command to kill Jokanaan (John the Baptist). After the deed is done, that is after John the Baptist is beheaded, the hangman's arm stretches up from the cistern, holding the head on a silver tray. In McVicar's version the executioner returns from the cistern as a totally naked, very handsome man.
In Strauss' score the executioner does not have a name. In the ROH's programme notes, and in McVicar's synopsis within the notes, the executioner is called Naaman. In fact Oscar Wilde, whose play Salome was the basis for Strauss' opera, does indeed name Naaman. While he is down in the cistern, Salome says: 'Strike, strike, Naaman, strike, I tell you...' But in Wilde's play, as in Strauss's score, only an arm appears with the head on the silver tray; we do not see the executioner. It is possible that I am not getting the deep meaning of the handsome nude male in McVicar's concept. Perhaps Salome imagines such a male figure while kissing the severed head. However, neither Oscar Wilde nor Richard Strauss suggests the return of the hangman, let alone as an extremely handsome nude male.
McVicar's production – first staged at the ROH in 2008 and now revived for the second time – opens with a two-level tableau: upstairs there is a luxurious royal banquet while downstairs servants and guards await their orders from upstairs. This is the theory. But from my seat in the middle of the second row in the amphitheatre I could see only table legs as well as people's legs from the royal banquet. To be fair, the Opera Essentials in the programme notes state that 'Upstairs, barely seen, Herod, Herodias and their guests enjoy an elegant dinner'. But surely, seeing legs only does not even approach 'barely seen'. Presumably it could have been difficult to see an upstairs banquet from a downstairs servants' quarters, yet the opera starts with the besotted Narraboth declaring (downstairs in this production) how beautiful Princess Salome was looking that evening. Of course, he might already have been upstairs. On the other hand, Strauss' score sets the dinner centre stage with some soldiers looking on from the sides – hence Narraboth could have seen Salome without any problem.
On the credit side, McVicar's characterisation of the individual roles is fascinating. As the current run is a second revival, substantial credit must also be due to revival director Barbara Lluch and, first and foremost, to the individual artists. Salome's descent to obsession beyond reason is superbly portrayed by Angela Denoke. Presumably corrupted – perhaps even seduced and raped – by her stepfather Herod earlier, her visible strong sexual urges are driven to misguided obsession and tragedy. In McVicar's inspirational interpretation, Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils is not about undressing but, rather suprisingly, about elegantly showing the mental sequence which might have caused Salome to eventually unhinge. Stig Anderson's Herod is not an all-out baddie. As played by Anderson, Herod's fascinatation with Salome, coupled with his guarded respect for his prisoner John the Baptist, makes him human (albeit not a good person). Rosalind Plowright's Herodias is fully credible although the character is complex. Beyond selfish greed we see the vulnerability of the wife whose husband happily strays and lusts after her own daughter. We even see compassion and warmth in Herodias, when she comforts the page. [I can't resist recalling Salome at the English National Opera several decades ago when Rosalind Plowright was the excellent page.]
Musically the performance mostly impressed. Angela Denoke's tour de force, with evidently plenty of vocal reserve right to the end, was astonishing. Stig Andersen's vocal delivery was just as nuanced as his dramatic portrayal of Herod. Rosalind Plowright sounded as natural as if the part of Herodias was written for her. I found Egils Silinš (Jokanaan) lacking of lyricism. My first Jokanaan all those years ago at the English National Opera was Norman Bailey. His lyrical input gave Jokanaan credible passion. On the other hand, Silinš' vocal delivery indicated a self-righteous man with heroism but without human depths. To be fair, Silinš might have been directed to sing in such manner. It is, in fact, the lyricism in Strauss' score which I missed in conductor Andris Nelsons' interpretation. He controlled his singers as well as his huge orchestral forces with authority and he maintained the excitement of the score throughout. But the lyric or, indeed, seductive motives were not as well catered for as I for one would have wished. Yet Strauss carefully balanced all those elements with the driven sections inherent in the music.
The audience at the first night was clearly impressed - and not without reason.
By Agnes Kory
Credits: Clive Barda/ROH