English National Opera @ Coliseum, London 19, 28 October, 2, 4, 10, 12, 17 November 2005
The opera Salome, based on Oscar Wilde's play, was first performed in Dresden in 1905. Just coming up to 100 years later, while it might not have the impact it must have done on a moralistic Edwardian audience, it still has plenty of power to shock.
David Leveaux's 1996 production uses half-derelict walls and off-kilter angles to depict the corrupt court of Herod, his wife Herodias and her daughter Salome.
A great window lets us peep into the interior of Herod's palace during the feast, flashes of red and the golden light contrasting with the stark brick outside, where Salome has escaped the lecherous stares of her stepfather and is persuading the love-struck captain of the guard to let her see the mysterious holy man, John the Baptist.
Strauss composed some of his most exotic, erotic and dramatic music for Salome, running for one hour and forty minutes without an interval (as a companion pointed out, about the same as one act of most Wagner operas, but seeming to go much faster). Some of the most beautiful is reserved for Jokanaan, prophesying the coming of the Messiah from his underground prison (it has been said that this music, of the Baptist for God, is actually more erotic than Salome's, which is sheer lust).
Robert Hayward, recently a memorable Jack the Ripper in Lulu and a formidable Wotan ENO's 2004 Ring Cycle, is in deep-throated voice as Jokanaan and for once, can be heard clearly from the depths. A compelling figure once he emerges to be displayed to the spoilt princess, his disgust is palpable.
That princess is played by Cheryl Barker, making her debut in this famous and taxing role. When she makes her entrance her red velvet costume brings the glamour and corruption of the court into the night, and she is certainly a seductive figure - rippling black waves of hair, scarlet mouth and a most expressive face. When she smiles, one can understand Narraboth, the young captain of the guard, being helpless to resist her demand.
As with her Tosca here in 2003, her voice is so secure that one can just relax and let the character take over. Her tone is glorious, especially when she really opens up at full volume; a full-bodied, rounded sound that on more than one occasion during this performance sent shivers down my spine. She can also be menacing in the lower registers, and she's a good actress to boot - despite some very odd movements, presumably dictated by the revival director Leah Hausman, especially in the first half. Her dance was a bit of a damp squib, reminiscent of the (limited) movements of Birgit Nilsson many years ago, though the climax - as she throws herself down in front of Herod in invitation - was powerful.
Sally Burgess is Herodias, slinking about the stage and looking poisonous (as well as gorgeous - some of our party thought Herod must be mad to prefer Salome). She didn't shine musically on this opening night, but it's a difficult part to make a lot of.
Herod, on the other hand, is a taxing but rewarding role, and John Graham Hall - always a good performer - moved into a different league while giving the performance of a lifetime. His voice has grown in stature and can be compared with Jon Vickers in his prime. He has always been good at creating utterly convincing characters on stage, whether loathsome or sympathetic - Mime (Siegfried) comes to mind most recently - but his Herod is a complete triumph. From the decadent, dissolute lecher as he lusts after Salome to the bewildered, fearful and horrified figure as he orders the killing of a monster even greater than himself, he is compelling.
Salome is conducted with aplomb by the young Trinidad-born Kwamé Ryan. It is wonderful to see that one so young (and in theory inexperienced) can exercise such impressive control over the huge ENO orchestra, which has never sounded better: surely a major star of the future.
I don't know what's happened to audiences at ENO - this opening night was fuller than that of The Carmelites, but there were still plenty of spare seats. Snap them up while you can - this is unmissable theatre.