The Royal Opera – Salome

Salome – music drama in one act to a libretto from Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé

Narraboth – Joseph Kaiser
The Page of Herodias – Daniela Sindram
First Soldier – Christian Sist
Second Soldier – Alan Ewing
Jokanaan (John the Baptist) – Michael Volle
A Cappadocian – Vuyani Mlinde
Salome – Nadja Michael
A slave – Pumeza Matshikiza
Herod – Robin Leggate
Herodias – Michaela Schuster
First Jew – Adrian Thompson
Second Jew – Martyn Hill
Third Jew – Hubert Francis
Fourth Jew – Ji-Min Park
Fifth Jew – Jeremy White
First Nazarene – Iain Paterson
Second Nazarene – Julian Tovey
Naaman – Duncan Meadows

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Philippe Jordan

David McVicar – Director
Es Devlin – Designs
Wolfgang Göbbel – Lighting
Andrew George – Choreography & Movement
Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer – Video designs

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 21 February, 2008
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Salome (Nadja Michael) kisses the head of Jokanaan. ©Clive BardaOn this first night of The Royal Opera’s new production of “Salome” there seemed to be quite a lot of potential still to be fully realised at subsequent performances. That said, for once the ghoulish ‘Final Scene’ – in which Salome receives, carries around, caresses and talks to and finally kisses Jokanaan’s head – managed to silence a hitherto restless and cough-laden audience and produce a palpable atmosphere of collective disgust.

A production that evokes this sort of response, the sort of reaction that the opera’s first audiences must have experienced, can only be counted a success. David McVicar’s direction is strong in a narrative sense, and he gets some excellent dramatic performances from the cast, especially illuminating of some of the minor roles. In particular the two soldiers of Christian Sist and Alan Ewing are nicely differentiated, the rich and warm-toned voice of the former making his character rightly emerge as the rather more sensitive and compassionate of the two. Daniela Sindram, playing Herodias’s Page, also had notable presence. The assorted Nazarenes, Jews and Cappadocian all make individual and memorable contributions, and it was refreshing that the ‘impossible’ quintet for the five Jews was not sent up.

Salome (Nadja Michael) dances for Herod (Thomas Moser). ©Clive BardaBut this opera ultimately depends musically and theatrically on its five major protagonists, the infamous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ and, above all, the orchestra. The latter was on blistering form – the exoticism and eroticism of Strauss’s busiest score emerged with pace, tension and clarity – from the clarinet’s opening upward figure to the crunching final chords. Philippe Jordan’s refused to over-indulge, his tempos generally fleet. The upper strings has a wonderfully sinewy and slithery quality – their plucked ascending scales that permeate the orchestral textures as Salome is gradually aroused by Jokanaan, particularly when he asks who she is and she tells him, were tremendously exciting. When Herod first appears, the strings had a curious menace to them. Trilling woodwinds and lower strings certainly brought much sultry and Eastern colour to ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ and brass and (again) lower strings made the rich harmonies that well-up whenever Jesus is mentioned stand out as the short calm moments they should.

Salome (Nadja Michael)with the executioner Naaman (Duncan Meadows). ©Clive Barda The German soprano Nadja Michael sang Salome. She started life as a mezzo and the lower registers of her voice reveal a rich and plummy sound that is not always apposite to a girlish princess – except when she is being particularly single-minded. These lower tones did not always seem comfortably integrated with the rest of the voice, and her top notes where not always the silvery open-throated tones needed. On a few occasions she seemed to be pushing just a little too hard and became slightly flat, but certainly there was a huge amount to enjoy in her physical performance that captured the princess’s capricious moods and inner steel so vividly and which makes the ‘Final Scene so nauseating.

Salome (Nadja Michael) pleads with Jokanaan (Michael Volle). ©Clive BardaMichael Volle was a muscular-voiced and virile visionary prophet, visually discomforted by his encounter with Salome. This role runs the risk of being a hectoring rant – but Volle with McVicar’s direction manages to avoid that pitfall, even if it is distracting that Jokanaan’s under-stage singing (from the cistern) should be relayed so that it sounds as if it comes from above.

Herodias (Michaela Schuster) and Herod (Thomas Moser). ©Clive Barda The odious and manipulative Herodias was portrayed as a younger woman than normal and this rather ungrateful role was neatly sung by Michaela Schuster, even if her interpretation lacks the focus that some seasoned soprano or mezzo veterans at the end of their careers have brought to the part. Joseph Kaiser sang a lovely lyrical and love-struck Narraboth and managed his suicide well (I liked the Second Soldier’s blasé and dismissive reaction to this desperate act).

Herod was to have been sung by Thomas Moser, but he was indisposed with a chest infection. Robin Leggate, once a Narraboth of distinction in previous Royal Opera productions, stepped in to sing and act an astonishingly complete portrayal, really making Herod the dominant male role of this opera. This was no character-tenor Herod, but one that was really sung, and with a true match of tone to text. Herod’s unhealthy attraction to Salome, his step-daughter, and his superstitious nervousness, was decidedly unsettling. Leggate rightly received a generous ovation from the audience and his colleagues.

The head of Jokanaan. ©Clive BardaUnder David McVicar’s direction, much of the opera is set in what appears to be a decaying public baths. Certainly the stills reproduced in the programme-book from Pasolini’s “Salò” had resonance in the staging. It was a shame that the right-side-positioned staircase down which Salome makes her first entrance must have rendered her invisible to much of the audience. And although seeing Herod and Herodias entertain their banquet-guests was a nice touch, it must have made less impact to the audience located in the upper tiers. The set changed completely for ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ – a one-to-one for Salome and Herod. Through moving archways seven scenes with video backdrops were enacted, mirrored though the dance. The initial image was that of a doll on a chair as Salome sat child-like on Herod’s knee; then he dressed her in a white silk dress as an image was projected of a dress being slowly unzipped. Other ball-scene representations such as chandeliers also appeared, and if the ‘Eastern Promise’ of the original setting was absent it was still strangely compelling and hypnotic.

First-night nerves and a major cast-change may not have helped a production that doesn’t quite add up – for the moment – but this staging is a strong one and the orchestral playing is electric. Strauss devotees (such as me) will surely be tempted to see it more than once.

  • Further performances on 25 & 29 February and 3, 6, 8 & 12 March – all at 7.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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