Thursday 21 February 2008

Salome, Royal Opera, 21 February 2008

Royal Opera House

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

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

David McVicar (director)
Es Devlin (designs)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Andrew George (choreography)
Mark Grimmer and Leo Warner (video design)

David McVicar’s reputation seems to be riding high in the operatic world at the moment, especially amongst those impatient with the more or even less extreme instances of Continental Regietheater. His La Clemenza di Tito for the English National Opera was a very fine production, which truly breathed life into the characters of an opera seria that has often been deemed problematical (largely, I should add, on account of inappropriate expectations). I liked his Covent Garden Magic Flute, which, in spite of a strangely disappointing final scene, had plenty of magic to it and in that sense – praise be! – suggested engagement with the music, although much less with the work’s profounder themes. Handel’s Giulio Cesare he appears to have dealt with by sending it and its genre up. (I say ‘appears to’ since I have not seen it myself, so am relying on reports.) Spectacle clearly appeals to McVicar and to much of his audience: this was the first time in many years I can recall applause uncontaminated by booing for the production team. There is something populist about his general approach which risks becoming merely conservative, capitulating to notions of opera as a ‘show’, a ‘good night out’, rather than a critical force. Deconstruction can be taken too far and should never become the only game in town, but questioning of a work’s claims does no harm whatsoever; indeed, a viable work will thereby be reinvigorated, instead of being condemned to the slow and painful death of a museum piece.

This was certainly not a ‘conservative’ production in the sense of adhering to stage directions and period costume. Instead, the action was updated to what seemed to be the 1920s or ’30s, although little, so far as I could tell, was made of this; in which case, why bother? It is not as if Salome were written during the inter-war period. There was perhaps an implication of violence being endemic to this period, but is that not the case for any time one might choose – and certainly for the ancient world? More seriously, the production titillated rather than challenged. In one very important respect, I believe it misrepresented and domesticated the work: Salome emerged more as a house of controlled and ultimately somewhat camp horrors than as dangerously erotic. An exception was Salome’s treatment of John the Baptist’s severed head, which truly shocked and was justly both horrific and erotic. I am not at all sure why Naaman, the executioner, emerged naked from the cistern, nor why he had all along been wearing only an overcoat, but it gave the actor Duncan Meadows, who played his odd part very well, an opportunity to show off his muscular, albeit excessively bloodstained physique. It must have been a very messy beheading.

The set was striking in its way, with a split-level ‘upstairs-downstairs’ arrangement, so that we saw the Tetrarch’s dinner party proceeding upstairs as the action proceeded downstairs. However, it made little sense for the dining company to repair downstairs; it would be a very odd dinner party that ended up in the servants’ quarters. Wolfgang Göbbel conveyed a suggestion of moonlight, which of course is all too present in the score, but this sat awkwardly with the setting in a basement. The extras were attentively directed, although I thought the presence of the Jews was slightly exaggerated. This may have been a reference to the updating, but it did not seem to lead anywhere.

The Dance of the Seven Veils was especially odd. I suspect this may be the first case of Salome actually gaining rather than discarding clothes. This would certainly have defied expectations, not least given the melodramatic announcement that the production would contain scenes of nudity and violence – it would be an odd Salome that did not – but I am not sure to what end. This dance was more akin to a balletic pas de deux in which Salome and Herod danced through seven rooms and for some reason she tried on what appeared to be a wedding dress before petulantly rejecting it. There was something appropriately nauseating to the action, assisted by Philippe Jordan’s attentive conducting – attentive, that is, to the events on stage – but this was the only aspect I found comprehensible. The filmic ‘symbolism’ was predictably heavy-handed, as is usually the case with what, with rare exceptions, is a hyper-realistic medium. A doll presumably indicated that Herod’s lusts were of long standing; a slow, awkward, melodramatic unzipping must have been just that. The exploding light bulb defeated me. At any rate, I assume that the stage-film relationship was this way round: perhaps the film indicated what was ‘really’ going on, and the stage action was ‘symbolic’. Either way, it failed to cohere. None of the several people I asked after the performance had the faintest idea what had been intended on stage, let alone depicted.

Jordan’s reading of the score revelled in its phantasmagorical elements. There were wonderful instances of exotic woodwind lines twisting and swirling, which are often lost in Strauss’s luxurious orchestration. In this sense, it was quite a ‘French’-sounding reading, which, given the work’s roots in perfumed French décadence seems a perfectly legitimate approach. That said, there were too many errors from the brass early on. And one crucial element, arguably the most crucial of all, only revealed itself during later scenes, namely the glow of the strings. For at least the first half of the opera, they had sounded unduly muted and did not really form the bedrock of the sound. Jordan’s account also became structurally more cohesive as the work proceeded. The punctuation of Herod’s entreaties with Salome’s insistence upon the ‘Kopf des Jochanaan’ was very well handled in terms of tempo and orchestral response. Salome’s words, searingly delivered by Nadja Michael, functioned as a kind of ritornello. Perhaps subsequent performances will iron out the earlier difficulties experienced on this, the opening night.

In the title role, Michael impressed. She hit most of the right notes, and paid commendable attention to the words and their meaning. Not only can she act; she also looks the part. Given her recent conversion to soprano roles, it should not surprise that her voice lacked a little in sheer Straussian refulgence. She was not the ‘sixteen year old princess with the voice of an Isolde,’ which Strauss so cruelly suggested, but she was an excellent Salome of a slightly lighter variety. Michael Volle was a towering presence in the role of Jokaanan, although the production’s conception of him as a ‘Beckettian tramp soaked in sewage’ worked against the intrinsic nobility of the role. Robin Leggate, standing in for an ailing Thomas Moser, was a fine Herod. Here campness is quite justified, although it was not overdone. But the words and their vocal shaping matter too, as Leggate illustrated. Michaela Schuster’s vocal performance as Herodias was impressive, but the production again rather worked against her. Amongst the gratuitous ‘horrors’, she was presented for the most part as nothing more grotesque than a housewife. Mention should also go to Joseph Kaiser, noble of utterance and beautiful of tone in the role of Narraboth. The utter indifference to his suicide – perhaps most shockingly from the holy man himself – was a nice touch from the production. Greater, more focused concentration on harrowing moments such as this would have paid dividends.

If I have uncharacteristically dealt more with the production than with the musical performance, then this is at least partly a consequence of the rather overwhelming nature of the stage business. In that sense, I am reminded of last year’s Salzburg Benvenuto Cellini. Less is often more, as directors of all persuasions should remind themselves. It takes a Harry Kupfer, as for instance in his superb Berlin Salome, to show that more can occasionally be more too.