Strauss: Salome

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 4 July 2010 3.5 stars

Angela Denoke as Salome (Photo: Clive Barda)After a poorly received new Aida and a revival of Le Nozze di Figaro, this second outing for David McVicar's 2008 Salome is the third of the Scottish director's productions to cross the boards of the Royal Opera House in as many months. In the hands of revival director Justin Way, it once again proudly boasts scenes of nudity and violence, but second time round many of its details (described in detail in our review of the first night) seem even more irrelevant to the drama. And once again, try as he might, McVicar fails to find anything in his Salò-inspired setting that doesn't feel like gentle titillation beside the necrophiliac shock administered so gleefully by Wilde and Strauss.

The pure dramatic shock is intensified, as re-reading Guy Dammann's programme essay reminds us, by the fact that moral and cultural values, at the time of the opera's 1905 premiere, were so inextricably linked. Even today it's difficult not to sit open-mouthed at the chutzpah displayed in Strauss's unscrupulous, not to mention virtuosically brilliant, employment of Wagnerian techniques to such unedifying ends. Outrage at the time was doubly strong given that the ban on Parsifal being performed beyond the hallowed stage of Bayreuth was about to be lifted. How, Siegfried Wagner asked in desperation, could his father's Bühnenweihfestspiel be dragged across a German stage soiled by such immoral filth?   

To some extent these attitudes still inform our opera-going habits, meaning that Salome's lost little of its ability shock on multiple levels. By contrast, nudity and violence are so ubiquitous these days that McVicar's additional tits-and-bums were always doomed to superfluity. There is, however, an intelligent sense of subversion at play, one senses, in his almost asexual staging of the Dance of the Seven Veils. Yet while this was intriguing on first viewing, clearly trying to flesh out Salome's complicated relationship with her father in a Freudian dream-sequence, it comes across a second time as stylish but ultimately baffling (and a bit more wobbly in its realisation).

Duncan Meadows as Namaan, Angela Denoke as Salome (Photo: Clive Barda)Emblematic of the production's weaknesses, in my view, is the figure of Duncan Meadows's Namaan. Elevated in importance to be a constant presence on stage, he skulks around with trench-coat and sword until his 'unveiling' as executioner. This and his subsequent bloodstained reappearance come across as little more than camp excess: more comic than shocking. It's an effect that is exacerbated by the fact that he shuffles awkwardly towards Salome during her final bars, prudishly keeping his back to the audience to save our blushes, before finally despatching her unconvincingly.  

Musically we were in safer hands, however. Taking over from the first run's Nadja Michael was another tall, elegant German in the title role, Angela Denoke. That's were the comparisons between the two must end, though. Denoke has little of Michael's febrile—even feral—stage presence, and, particularly in the early stages, her Salome gives the impression of a role intelligently negotiated rather than inhabited. Her gleaming soprano can't quite soar above the stave or twist itself around Strauss's lines as seductively as one might like, but despite some moments of unsure tuning there were none of the car-crash intonation problems that marred Michael's performance. Her diction early on was poor, however, and added to a feeling of her being distant from the drama, but she rallied for a fine account of the final scene, both vocally and dramatically.

Johan Reuter was stentorian and unflinching as Jochanaan, projecting well from the cistern and full of pent-up indignation on being brought up into the open. This was a powerful performance, even if there was little sense of chemistry Johan Reuter as Jokanaan (Photo: Clive Barda)between him and Denoke. It was unusual to see Gerhard Siegel and, in particular, Irina Mishura play Herod and his wife in such broadly comic terms, even raising some laughs. Somewhat paradoxically, though, their arrival seemed to loosen the rest of the cast up after a slight a lack of dramatic engagement and intensity in the early scenes.

Andrew Staples, as Narraboth, had the unenviable task of hitting the ground running in the opera's opening bars, but sang with open-throated passion. The rest of the cast was ably filled by Royal Opera stalwarts, with the exception of rather hollow-sounding French baritone, Nicolas Courjal, who'd been brought in to sing the First Soldier.

In the pit, Hartmut Haenchen took a little while to exert his authority, with the serpentine wind lines that dominate the score early on rather too loosely tied together. There was not much delicacy or light and shade here, and some of the Dance was rushed through to the detriment of sensuality, but he delivered the goods when required, not least in the scrunching anti-apotheosis.

By Hugo Shirley

Photo Credits: Clive Barda