Few live events could offer a more intense, visceral, grotesque experience than witnessing a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome translated and adapted for the opera stage by Hermann Lachmann and set to music by Richard Strauss. Wilde’s decadentist retelling of the biblical tale takes no prisoners, rejoicing in hedonism, passion, corruption and depravity, pouring over with lust, guts and gore. Similarly, Strauss’s score is relentless in its fin-de-siècle, over-ripe Romanticism; its raw, wriggling lasciviousness; its constant, compulsive excessiveness. No amount of familiarity with the story, the text, or indeed the score, can prepare you for the pure physicality of this dramatic masterwork – least of all when, like me, it provides you with your first taste of the Royal Opera House in all its plush glory.
The opera, or rather, in true Wagnerite fashion, the music drama, presents the physical and psychological descent of the eponymous ‘heroine’ from spoilt (and abused) rich girl to necrophiliac psychopath. In fact, it doesn’t merely present, it lives it: the music twists and turns, ascends and plunges as Salome’s moods swing; as Jokanaan (John the Baptist) prophesises fire, brimstone and the coming of Christ; as Herod leaches and hallucinates; as the satellite characters bicker and squabble; as the whole situation decays and collapses into its shocking and bloody conclusion.
David McVicar’s production, returning for the second time to the ROH, is suitably uncompromising in its vivid embracing of the opera’s grotesqueries, and Es Devlin’s set design, with its dirty, cracked white tiles evoking the corrupted clinicism of an abandoned hospital, adds a suitably horrific ‘Hostel’-esque edge to the underside of Herod’s castle. My only problem was with an experimental ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, the opera’s only set-piece, in which, behind closed doors and thinly veiled metaphors, Salome dances her way (or rather steps unconvincingly) through memories of her step-father’s abuse. This directional sleight-of-hand, designed to resolve the challenge of staging a genuine dance by an opera singer, failed in my eyes because it offered some dramatic respite to an otherwise paralysing intensity. The Orchestra of the ROH, conducted by Andris Nelsons, played impeccably from the opening slithering clarinet run to the smothering, stabbing chords as the curtain falls and Salome meets her sticky end. Nelsons kept the energy level unbearingly high, with the exception of an underwhelming ‘Seven Veils’. This loss of tension had the direction to blame rather than the performance; with the only change of staging, and a scene filled with dynamic scenery, the stifling stasis of the sullied white dungeon scene was, rather criminally, lost.
However, the perfection of German soprano Angela Denoke’s Salome would’ve saved any production, and she was certainly the jewel in the crown of this one. Denoke’s comprehension and dramatic representation of the deranged heroine’s character was, frankly, terrifying, and her musical agility and spotlessness were frequently, and very literally, jaw-dropping. Now naïve, now immature, now coquettish, now manipulative, now poetic, now lyrical, now corrupted, now depraved, but always in complete control, Denoke’s interpretation bordered on terrifying perfection in its total encapsulating of this incredibly demanding character – demanding not only in personality but equally (or even more so) in vocal dexterity and stamina. Next to her, the rest of the cast paled, if not into insignificance, then at least into obscurity, with the exception perhaps of Will Hartmann, who sang the tenor role of Narraboth – the captain whose passion for Salome causes him to commit suicide at his disgust in her obsession with Jokanaan – notably excellently. Stig Andersen’s Herod was less exceptional: though he brought out the pathetic nature of the Tetrarch’s personality very nicely, I felt he could’ve been creepier and more musically daring. A mention must also be made of Duncan Meadows’ hulking and hauntingly silent, naked, blood-stained executioner, who was a constant menace throughout, and who provided us all with some blessed respite as he undertook the finally act of the opera: Salome’s murder.
Salome is a hard pill to swallow. With Wilde’s gruesome plot and Strauss’s intense score, it can be a really difficult work to sit through. But a performance like this one, traumatising though it may be, can certainly be a truly staggering dramatic experience. And equally, an introduction to the Royal Opera House it would be impossible to forget.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
Denoke as Salome, Anderson as Herod, Plowright as Herodias © Royal Opera House / Clive Barda
Angela Denoke as Salome © Royal Opera House / Clive Barda