Opera Review by Polly Hope

SALOME. Richard Strauss.
Libretto taken from the play by Oscar Wilde

Royal Opera House Covent Garden London

This production is an absolute knockout. Fabulous on all accounts. It is so, so rare to be scared stiff and deeply moved and have the hair stand up on the back of my neck in the opera house. Usually all is so genteel. This SALOME is one and three quarter hours of total intensity. I left my red velvet seat completely shattered and stumbled out into the real world glad to find myself safe from the butcher¹s axe.

Of course Richard Strauss had a pretty stunning text to work with, Oscar Wilde was an ace storyteller, even though his words have been through several translations by now. The text works, every nuance is dramatically exact and the action moves fast from royal splendour to bloody mayhem, yet lingers over some glorious heart breaking beautiful poetry. Proof again that good libretti do so very much for opera, a point often forgotten.

This is a work about lust and obsession and obsession and lust and how totally consuming such emotions are when they break out of the boundaries of good behaviour and become horrendous insatiable ravenous beasts. Salome moves from aristocratic aloofness slowly plunging ever further into lust until she is totally consumed with sexual desire and drowns in it. She is so mad with lust and wild fury at being repelled by Jokanaan that she becomes a blood soaked uncontrollable monster.

Jokanaan is also completely obsessed, but with his religion, and to such an extent that no other human even deserves to breath unless prostrated in front of his Lord. Every streak of humanity, and compassion for human suffering negated by his howls of religious mania.

Herod is besotted and determined on incest, he is a King and what he wants he¹s going to get. And the music winds all this up to such a level of intensity it is difficult to breathe. Strauss gives us all the horror of a closed society where logic and natural relationships have long ago vanished.

The action is set in some ghastly palace in the 1930s in a country ruled by uniformed Fascists; surely Rome was like this? It seems most exactly right. Staff captains in khaki breeches with medals and pistols are running the show. Herod wears a dinner jacket as he¹s hosting a feast, which is set in a room above the main stage. An art deco staircase spirals down stage left and those 1930Œs clinging satin gowns glide down it with great effect. The designer, Es Devlin, has made a set exactly right for a nouveau riche Middle
Eastern potentate.

The tale is relentless as Salome grows ever more frantic with desire. No one can stop her. Angela Denoke is fabulous, tall and slim, she looks seriously sexy in her satin evening frock and can she singŠ and danceŠ and act. When she is finally killed having delivered fifteen minutes of an unrequited love song to Jokanaan¹s bloody head cradled in her lap, a sigh of relief goes round the auditorium. Such a monster had to be silenced. And for good. Her
voice is exquisite, somewhere between Berlin nightclub and Queen of the Night, perfect for this part.

There isn¹t a single weakness with any of he singers; all are exceptional in their roles. Noble and bonkers Jokanaan is sung by Johan Reuter, vast voice, vast frame, total madness, quite terrific. Gerhard Siegel as dirty old Herod and Irina Mishura as horrid Herodias are both very nasty.

Even the dreaded Dance of the Seven Veils is brilliantly handled, the stage becomes almost a cinema and Herod and Salome dance through room after room after room on a moving stage. Projections keep the story going as they waltz and slide and run through door after door. All that must have taken a lot of time to make work properly No nudity and all the more erotic because of
Salome never going further than her slip. The dance is a dream sequence with just Salome and Herod on stage. It is the only time I¹ve ever seen this dance work.

David McVicar has done a magnificent job directing. He is always a clever director, but here he has got under the human skins of his characters, although you wouldn¹t want to meet any of them. Mostly he has the sense to leave everyone unmoving and let the three main protagonists thunder around the stage getting ever more hysterical.

Hartmut Haenchen gets the wonderful Covent Garden orchestra playing at their zenith, what a score it is when played thus. Music sure does ratchet up the painŠ

Finally an opera production I will go and see again, can¹t remember the last time I wanted to do this. Catch this one if you possibly can whatever the cost.

Oh so good to find opera so deeply moving, if only it could always be thus.

Polly Hope London