A routine reappearance of a favourite Salome on this Opus Arte DVD takes on a special poignancy given the recent death of Sir Edward Downes. And with a justly famous portrayal of the title role from Maria Ewing – her willingness to bare all in the Dance of the Seven Veils less impressive than the astonishing array of shocking emotion she lays bare in the final monologue – it would be easy to take Downes' masterful traversal of the score for granted. Much has justifiably been made of his unrivalled expertise in Verdi, particularly, as well as parts of the Russian repertoire, but here's compelling proof, for any that might have forgotten, of what he could do with Strauss: it's a reading that has all the seductiveness and febrile power one could want and is perfectly integrated with the fine cast.
Filmed in 1992, it's inevitable that Peter Hall's production looks a little dated – both in itself and as it appears here – but it remains an admirably clear and uncluttered view of the work. David McVicar's 2008 production – also recently released by Opus Arte – might look a lot more smart and glossy but I enjoyed returning to Hall's straightforward concept: a Jugendstil moon is given pride of place, the stage action is strongly focussed and the film itself has scrubbed up nicely for the DVD release. In short, the emphasis returns onto the enormous shock value of Strauss and Wilde, rather than having the debauchery cranked up to such an extent that it, paradoxically, starts to feel diluted and run-of-the-mill.
The production draws the audience in to Salome and the camera direction, particularly in the final scene, focuses unremittingly on her gruesome triumph. It says a great deal for the sheer power of Ewing's portrayal of the Judean princess that her performance not only stands up to this sort of close scrutiny but greatly benefits from it. She inhabits the role completely and is shockingly vivid, oozing sensuality and desire, drawing us into her own subjective view of events. Albeit faintly aware, it seems, of the moral implications of her actions, she believes her twisted triumph and apotheosis to be every bit as noble as those of her Wagnerian predecessors. Vocally, Ewing is also very impressive: it's a voice that's more lyric than dramatic but she marshals her resources carefully, keeping a great deal in reserve for the final minutes. Her way with the German is not wholly idiomatic – one suspects she might have preferred to have been singing in Wilde's original French – and she does occasionally swoop around the vocal line and resort to a sort of Sprechgesang for added dramatic effect, but it remains an astonishingly powerful piece of acting.
As Jokanaan, Michael Devlin sings powerfully and acts with similar commitment. His make-up and costume seem designed to chime with Salome's own descriptions – red mouth, ivory skin, long black hair – and he has obviously been robbed of dignity, appearing as asomewhat ghostly apparition, with something of Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films about him. Little attempt is made to humanise Herod and his wife, who are monsters in the old-style. Nevertheless, Kenneth Riegel sings the king with the kind relish and effortless command one doesn't always hear and Gillian Knight is forthright as Herodias. Robin Leggate – in a rather dated looking blond bouffant – sings a highly charged Narraboth and Royal Opera regulars make up the rest of the cast.
The film itself looks remarkably good, without any of the graininess that can afflict releases from this era. The sound, too, is very serviceable, although there are some moments of odd balance (the bassoons after Jokanaan's curse are impossibly loud, for example) and Devlin sounds dreadfully tinny from his cistern.
At a very reasonable price, this isn't a production to force any reassessments of Strauss's break-through opera but remains one of the most recommendable filmed performances in the catalogue.
By Hugo Shirley
McVicar's Salome from Covent Garden on DVD (Opus Arte)
Salome at the Royal Opera David McVicar's production opens (Feb 2008)
Salome at WNO starring Erika Sunnegårdh (March 2009)
CD Review Salome in English from Sir Charles Mackerras (Chandos)