Salome - Royal Opera House, 21 February 2008
I feel short changed. The Royal Opera House promised 'scenes of nudity and violence' in their new Salome. A couple of topless extras loll about at the start as if they're waiting for a bra fitting. And when the beefcake executioner emerges at the end with the head of John the Baptist, he's coated in the prophet's blood and absolutely nothing else, a gory birth/death. But that's it, secks'n'violence-wise. Not even a glimpse of Salome in the celebrated seven veils dance - when she drops her frock, it's only to reveal a sensible granny slip underneath.
There are shocks in this production alright, but not the sort that will necessarily gratify the 'topless opera' googlers (and believe me there are plenty around). With a nod to Pasolini's Salò, it's placed in a huge and grubby tiled basement, wine racks one end, urinals the other. Nice. The setting is '30's Italy or something similar. Herod and his guests are in tired looking evening wear, the ladies in jewelled satin gowns. It's an environment so decadent that anything goes, everything is acceptable. Uniformed soldiers loiter and grope barely-dressed women. Immaculate servants tend silently to all needs. No-one really notices or cares when Narraboth neatly kills himself. Salome is not so much the wilful slut as the pitiable product of a fatally corrupted society and (strongly implied) child abuse. Her dance for Herod is played as a series of sick fantasies/games - or maybe a dream sequence of hazily recollections, it's hard to tell. Fatalism is her guide, not sensuality. Her death is inevitable.
OK, so that's the clever bit of this production. On the dumb side, David McVicar has given his set an upstairs level. The wicked geometry of viewing angles meant that those of us way up top in Covent Garden's cheapest seats couldn't actually see what was happening there. From the feet and table legs on view I would hazard that Herod's guests were enjoying dinner. Possibly it was constructed that way as a blindingly ironic comment - the poor gazing upon the rich etc - but I suspect it's more likely to have been a simple design cock up. It would be more forgivable if this was some imported show designed for a different theatre, but at the premiere of an in-house production there's really no excuse.
Musically, Michael Volle (Jokanaan) was the unquestionable star of the night. Huge, wild and hairy, with a voice to match, he filled the stage and, perhaps intentionally, was the only character to project any real warmth. Everyone else had a less than human quality that just left me cold, indifferent either way to their fate.
Nadja Michael was otherwise a better Salome than I'd expected. A fine actress not afraid to throw herself around physically, she writhed gamefully on the floor for much of the night. She got most of the notes and kept her vibrato under control, but her delivery lacked refinement. I know this is a hellish role to cast with all its acting, dancing and visual requirements on top of the singing, but I would simply rather hear a purer, more youthful voice.
Robin Leggate was a last minute replacement for the sick Thomas Moser as Herod, and in the circumstances did a creditable job. The singing was all there, but the presence was neither regal nor imposing, and he faded away when he should have been terrifying. Michaela Schuster didn't have a great deal of sensuality, but the wheedling manipulative side of Herodias came across strongly. Joseph Kaiser's Narraboth was another that didn't make a huge impression, despite there being nothing particularly wrong with his performance. I just felt 'so what' as he stabbed himself.
I imagine if conductor Philippe Jordan could have any heads on a plate, he'd probably pick the horn section. Not his fault there were so many scrappy entrances and bum notes from that quarter. He generally did a competent if somewhat unadventurous job, lacking that sweeping opulence the score demands, though he managed to gather up some steam towards the end.
I'd like to go back and try this again - all the right ingredients are there even if it didn't quite come off tonight. Annoyingly, it looks like a near sell-out already though.
**Update*** - more (including photos) here