6/7/10, Covent Garden
ROH production by David McVicar revived with Angela Denoke as Salome, Johan Reuter as Jokanaan, Gerhard Siegel as Herod and Irina Mishura as Herodias.
Seeing both Salome and Semele within a week leads to the inescapable conclusion that girls whose names begin with S and include L, M and lots of vowels are best avoided in real life, but they're god's gift to opera composers.
Strauss's psychological study of erotic obsession just about makes the heroine's transition from bored little rich girl into murderous maniac convincing. The music helps a lot. Like Janacek Strauss sets words to music very carefully and closely. The only tunes in this are in Salome's dance, though there are hints of melody in Jokanaan's prophecies. Surtitles don't quite make up for the lack of immediacy you'd get from words you could hear and understand instantly, but sitting through this in the days before surtitles must have been torture, since the words are so vital.
Set in the basement of Herod's palace, where soldiers lounge and the female help are naked (or nearly so) at the start and the tiles are stained. The soldiers' uniforms are vaguely World War Two and the women's clothes flapperish. The piece as written is mildly anti-Semitic, but there's a tendency for modern directors to give anything with a Jewish connection overtones of the Holocaust, and this is no exception. Is this some sort of concentration camp? Are the women abused? Have the soldiers been extracting sexual favours by force? It turns out, once they have (very slowly) dressed, that they're simply maids, on the staff.
Upstairs the posh folks are at dinner. From the Upper Amphitheatre only their chair legs were visible below the top of the proscenium. Mentally I'd started drafting my furious letter to Covent Garden's management about such dismissive treatment of those of us in the cheap seats. But soon the jaded toffs descended a great circular staircase toplit by brilliant moonlight to slum it in search of thrills down in the basement/on the main stage where even those of us in the gods could see them.
Salome, in a long white dress, comes first, goading the captain of the guard with teasing hints of sexual favours into letting Jokanaan out of his cistern. She demands to touch his body, touch his hair, kiss his mouth; he rejects all three. The captain, in an implausible touch, kills himself at this evidence of Salome's contempt.
Enter Herod and the rest from the banquet, demanding Salome's return. When she refuses they set up shop downstairs with a bunch of waiters, half a dozen bickering Jews (they can't agree on whether mortals can see God), a drunken topless girl and the soldiers. There are a good many singing parts but even more non-singing: Dr T thought the non-singers were well-handled and well-integrated into the action, unlike the pointless scurriers at Idomeneo the other other night.
The dance wasn't the usual genteel striptease (though Ms Denoke has the physique for that) but a curious glimpse into Salome's tortured sub-conscious. The set and the rest of the cast melted away for the duration. She and Herod mimed and danced through a series of rooms. The rooms were represented by walls and doors that travelled across the stage at right angles to the audience from stage right to stage left, with a bright light shining from stage left. In some of the "rooms" a huge video projection was thrown onto the back wall, of a woman's naked back or a doll or a zip being teased apart, and each room came with props (mainly clothes) manoeuvred on and off by the maids. In the first room was a chair and a doll: Herod sat on the chair and Salome sat on Herod. In a later room Herod helped her on and off with a white party dress, dancing with her when it was on. Intimations in all of this of incest and child abuse, presumably.
After the dance Herod tries hard to wriggle out of his promise to Salome when she repeatedly, stonily demands Jokanaan's head on a platter. He rows with Herodias, played as a monstrous Margaret Dumont-like figure in a bright blue ballgown with a tail Mishura had to keep flicking imperiously out of the way with her foot (especially when dancing with Herod).
The executioner, who has been standing by throughout dressed in a greatcoat with a huge sword, discards the coat and descends naked into the cistern to sever Jokanaan's head. (It's a psychoanalyst's wet dream, this opera.) Super musical atmospherics here and at many other points: film composers owe a lot to Strauss.
The head proves to have huge amounts of blood in it, which transfers itself gorily to Salome's white shift as she cradles the head and sings madly for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Until at the end Herod can take no more and in the closing seconds orders her dead.
Powerful stuff, well-staged, well-acted, well-sung. We look forward to Oscar Wilde's original at Hampstead in a week or two.