You might lose your head at Covent Garden’s revival.
This exemplary revival of Strauss’ scandalous one act opera was supposed to be the second night of The Royal Opera’s new season – but the announcement of The Queen’s death the evening before had resulted in the last minute cancellation of the season opener, a revival of Don Giovanni. This was undoubtedly the right call. On Friday the company’s director of opera, Oliver Mears, made an announcement before the performance of Salome began, we observed a minute’s silence and, after a hesitant start, sang the national anthem with gusto. It’ll take some time getting used to singing ‘God save the King’, for sure.
This revival of David McVicar’s ingenious staging, inspired by Italian filmmaker Pasolini’s ‘Salò’, portrays the decadence and depravity of Herod’s court to perfection. Aided and abetted by Es Devlin’s distressed basement set, replete with filthy latrines and hanging animal carcasses, the Scottish director tells the story with unflinching power – you can almost smell the rotting stench of a society devoid of a moral compass. There are many breath taking theatrical coups, especially reimagining the Dance of the Seven Veils as a Freudian journey into Salome’s damaged past. Faithfully reived here by Bárbara Lluch, every character, however minor, is superbly delineated. This was its fifth outing and having seen this staging at each of its incarnations discovered little details I hadn’t noticed before. Let’s just hope creating Zeffirelli-lite stagings at the Met, New York hasn’t sapped McVicar of the kind of inventiveness on show here in his 14-year-old staging.
“This revival… portrays the decadence and depravity of Herod’s court to perfection”
Musically, the evening was a triumph as well. Swedish soprano Malin Byström caused a sensation here when she took on the title role in 2018, and this time round was even better – something I hadn’t thought possible, given how superb her portrayal of Salome was four years ago. The voice has darkened, and there’s more weight in the middle, yet she remains rock steady and formidable at the top of her range, which allows her to ride the orchestral tumult with consummate ease. In addition she’s a natural stage animal, and charts the journey from spoilt princess to deranged necrophiliac with unfaltering intensity. She’s the third soprano to sing the role in this production and is by far the best.
Making his house debut, Hawaiian bass-baritone Jordan Shanahan was a powerful presence as Jokanaan, both vocally and physically – hurling out his prophecies and insults with fervour. John Daszak returned as an oleaginous Herod and, despite the occasional strained high note, captured the character’s depravity to perfection. As his wife, Katarina Dalayman gave us a gin-soaked Herodias, just about remaining on the right side of caricature, yet sang with conviction. There wasn’t a weak link in the supporting cast either, with Thomas Atkin’s virile, heroic Narraboth getting the performance off to a thrilling start.
British conductor Alexander Soddy was appearing in the pit for the first time – and what an auspicious conducting debut it proved to be. He grasped all the jarring facets of Strauss’ sickly-sweet score – and blended them into a convincing whole. There was a sense of forward propulsion, yet it never sounded hurried. And unlike some other conductors, he managed to capture the hysteria of the piece without it ever become hysterical. The playing of the ROH orchestra was without fault and often incandescent, no more so in the closing pages – that famous tutti discord after Salome kisses Jokanaan’s severed head has never sounded more audacious and repellent. Seats are still available for the remaining five performances, but they won’t be for long once word gets out that this revival of Salome is such an unmissable night of music theatre.
• Further details of future performances can be found here.