More depravity, please: Salome, at the Royal Opera House, review
The first night of the new season at Covent Garden was canceled when the solemn news broke. The second opened with a short respectful speech by Oliver Mears, the opera director, and a minute of silence during which the lights in the house were dimmed and we were able to gaze at the curtains, whose enormous Gold-embroidered EIIR cipher had already been removed. For the first time during the reign of King Charles, we sang the national anthem to new, unfamiliar words. There were cries of ‘God Save the King!’ And then the lights went out once more and we went on with the business of the evening and the life of the Royal Opera.
Britain never had a court opera in the continental sense, and that’s a good thing, sparing us the epic bombast which disfigures so many European art institutions, and which was imported wholesale by the USA (expect a British orchestra to address you as ‘Maestro’ and you’ll laugh at the scene). The relationship between opera and British royalty has always been lighter. Arriving late at Covent Garden one afternoon, I was ushered, temporarily, into the vacant royal box. The sightlines were terrible, probably the worst in the house, with barely a third of the stage visible. This is probably what His late Majesty tolerated, without complaint, during all these years.
Be that as it may, the show went on, and while it is hard to think of an opera less appropriate for such a grave occasion as that of Richard Strauss Salomeit is also difficult to think of many circumstances in which Salome would still be appropriate. That’s kind of the point: it’s blasphemous, it’s depraved, and the Vienna Court Opera banned it outright until the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, when nothing in Austria was left. really mattered. It’s the fourth revival of David McVicar’s 2008 production, and in the hands of director Barbara Lluch it looks flawless, with a sickly greenish light illuminating the corridors below Herod’s Pleasure Palace. We only catch a glimpse of the decadence above the stairs, where the tetrarch appears to be hosting a distinctly Bunuel-ish dinner party.
Visually, it is therefore a simple update. I’m not entirely convinced that the Dance of the Seven Veils is presented as a cinematic fashion show, but it looks striking and smartly avoids all that objectionable male gaze stuff. Salomé undresses in pursuit of her desires? Tut, tut – not here, she does not. A muscular slave undresses for our greatest pleasure? Phwoor! Yes, thank you, point made, but there is a deeper problem with McVicar’s portrayal of Salome as victimized prey. Oscar Wilde’s text and Strauss’ music both show her wielding immense sexual power against a weak and ineffectual Herod. It’s not nice, but as Wilde once said (and Strauss seems to have agreed), there is no such thing as moral or immoral art. If a staging of Salome operates in an audience’s ethical comfort zone, it does something wrong.
Two elements stand out from the current revival. Malin Bystrom returns as Salome, and her progression from boyish society heiress (her large eyes convey a gruesome, penetrating innocence) to brutalized grotesqueness is appallingly observable. His voice is both rich and focused, spilling like a bloodstain over Strauss’ silky orchestration, before – in the final scenes – tightening and cooling into something relentless. She growls; even more remarkable, after 90 minutes of singing at full power, it flies away. She emerges as the drama’s only fully realized character against a cast of brilliantly drawn caricatures: John Daszak’s nervous and anxious Herod, Katarina Dalayman’s swaggering Pea Hen Herodias, and Jordan Shanahan’s suitably imposing Jokanaan.
In the pit, meanwhile, Alexander Soddy leads an expressionist reading of Strauss’s score: Schiele rather than Klimt, with penetrating strings and big, ominous blocks of horn sound. It’s tense, it doesn’t linger, and Soddy brings out the awkward angles and dirty little corners of Strauss’ orchestral mosaic – growling contrabassoon, slimy bass clarinet and phosphorescent, shrill treble woodwinds. The climatic dissonance seemed rotten to the bone, as an almost possessed Salome stroked the weeping head of the dejected prophet. How different, how very different from our dear Queen’s family life.
At the South Bank, Paul Daniel conducted the London Philharmonic in a concert of Offenbach’s comedy The Princess of Trebizond: an underrated conductor bringing an almost forgotten score to life with quite irresistible affection and flair. It’s silly as a brush (Girl pretends to be wax; Prince falls in love with wax; can-cans ensue) but Offenbach’s melodies shimmer like dew, even with spoken dialogue (a crucial part of the opera-buffa mix) stripped down and replaced with narration (Harriet Walters, effortlessly ironic). Virginie Verrez shone in the trouser role of Prince Raphaël and Anne-Catherine Gillet bounced off the walls as a flirtatious Zanetta. The entire soufflé was taped for release by Opera Rara, and it went straight to my wishlist.