Sunday, 18 September 2022

Salome, Royal Opera, 17 September 2022

Royal Opera House

Narraboth – Thomas Atkins
Page of Herodias – Annika Schlicht
First Soldier – Simon Shibambu
Second Soldier – Simon Wilding
Jokanaan – Jordan Shanahan
Cappadocian – John Cunningham
Salome – Elena Stikhina
Slave – Sarah Dufresne
Herod – John Daszak
Herodias – Katarina Dalayman
First Jew – Paul Curievici
Second Jew – Michael J. Scott
Third Jew – Aled Hall
Fourth Jew – Alasdair Elliott
Fifth Jew – Jeremy White
First Nazarene – James Platt
Second Nazarene – Chuma Sijeqa
Naaman – Duncan Meadows

David McVicar (director)
Bárbara Lluch (revival director)
Es Devlin (designs)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Andrew George (choreography, movement)
Emily Piercy (revival choreography)
59 Productions (video)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Alexander Soddy (conductor)

This was a Salome best remembered for its singing, at least once beyond the absurdity of prefacing it with ‘God save the King’. (The production might have been adapted, I suppose, to have Herod come onstage to receive his tribute, but that was not to be.) Stepping in for Malin Byström, Elena Stikhina acquitted herself very well in the title role, short notice or not. One more or less has to forgive a lack of consonants from time to time in this role; so long as that could be agreed upon, this was an involving, increasingly commanding performance, to which Stikhina clearly gave her all. Thomas Atkins’s heartfelt lyricism heightened rather than detracted from dramatic portrayal of Narraboth: another definite highlight. John Daszak and Katarina Dalayman convinced as Herod and Herodias, both very much stage animals, though there were times when insensitive conducting had one struggle to hear the latter’s words. Jordan Shanahan’s thoughtful Jokaanan had the great virtue of leading one to concentrate on words rather than aura, though I would not have minded a little more in the latter sense too. A fine supporting cast, assembled from depth, was another signal virtue; as, doubtless, was its direction. For trying to identify precisely who is responsible for what is often a fool’s errand; opera is, or should be, a team effort to which all contribute.

Sadly, in that respect, this performance was sorely let down by the conducting of Alexander Soddy. That side of things improved somewhat, though even the final scene turned out at best Kapellmeister-ish: a reasonable sense of how it should go, yet little beyond. Earlier on, though, it was a depressing account, for which the orchestra should probably bear some responsibility too. (Who knows, though, what havoc recent ‘events’ may have wrought with rehearsal schedules?) The first scene was all over the place, stage and pit unsynchronised and plagued by balance issues that marked the entire performance. Various orchestral lines went unheard, bludgeoned by shattering insensitivity. Even when together, Strauss sounded like a poor-to-stolid Wagner imitator, the phantasmagorical magic of his orchestration going for nothing in as non-transparent a reading of his music as I have ever heard. The aestheticism that marks not only Salome’s subject matter but the score itself, Strauss’s Nietzscheanism triumphantly rejecting, even mocking, Wagner and Schopenhauer alike was disturbingly absent, replaced not with an alternative view but merely an effort to progress from one bar to the next. Strangely pronounced bass lines neither grounded nor propelled the harmony; they were just strangely pronounced. Some passages—rarely anything longer than that—were better, but really this was playing unworthy of a major international house. 

That aestheticism was, however, touched upon in the fourth revival of David McVicar’s production, here renewed by Bárbara Llano. My response to McVicar’s staging has varied over the years, increasingly suspecting that its ‘house of horrors’ approach threw too many bags into the same basket. It is also, if we are honest, looking a little tired by now. That said, I was grateful not only for the sheer professionalism at work, but all the more so for ideas—my fault, I am sure—that had barely registered with me previously. Gore is still present, most memorably in the bloodstained emergence of the naked executioner Naaman, fresh from his deed. Whether one considers that gratuitous will probably remain a matter of taste, but it seemed to me clear, indeed far clearer than before, that this was a comment not only on an interwar world of militarised, fascist violence, but also, more importantly, on the dangers and joys of an aestheticism passed from Wilde to Strauss, via Pasolini’s Salò and Sade himself to McVicar and to us. Politics and aesthetics are not to be disentangled, however much characters onstage and audience offstage might wish them to be. Nor can we forget the past; a harrowing retelling of abuse during the Dance of the Seven Veils makes that clear. There are doubtless lessons to be learned there, but no one, least of all Salome, will do so: itself, of course, an important further lesson.