David McVicar’s gripping new production of Strauss’ one-act opera boasts a striking central performance from German soprano Nadja Michael. Quite extraordinarily, she began her career singing mezzo roles, switching to the soprano fach only three years ago. What is less surprising is that she is now in demand throughout Europe for this key role in the soprano repertoire.
Michael’s emotions encompass childish petulance, perverse longing, unrelenting insistence and even a loving gentleness as she sings to the severed head. Her final ecstasy is truly disgusting rendering her death inevitable. The singer displays an amazing vocal range from startlingly booming lower notes to a surprisingly secure, if not altogether beautiful, top. There’s an elasticity in her performance that is spell-binding.
The curtain rises on a quite extraordinary scene. With great visual boldness, designer Es Devlin has created a split-level set with the top layer just a narrow strip (sadly, this may not be seen by those in the higher parts of the theatre). Here, Herod’s court carouses and passes a semi-naked woman between them; it’s a thin layer of glitter hovering above a cavernous vault of corruption.
McVicar and his designers have set the work in Strauss’ own era, with strong hints of Nazi atrocity in the implied misuse of several women, though nothing too specific. From the beginning there’s a foreshadowing of events to come, with a grey-clad ruffian grasping a large gleaming blade casting forward to the beheading, and a fragile female nakedness pre-empting Salome’s nudity.
There’s a stench of the abattoir about the setting; in the background hang carcasses of animals and an atmosphere of dead meat haunts the production. From a deeper layer floats the steady baritone of Michael Volle, as the imprisoned prophet Jokanaan. When he emerges, dishevelled but not broken, he displays tremendous stage presence, warranting Salome’s morbid fascination with him.
Robin Leggate, standing in for an indisposed Thomas Moser, is a hawk-like Herod, trying to dance away the threat of Jokanaan’s ominous predictions. He and Michaela Schuster‘s sturdy Herodias are an urbane couple, self-indulgence lying close to the elegant surface, although there’s a slightly suburban feel to them.
Generally, there’s an insouciance about the production that almost dispels the dramatic tension, although there are moments of expressionistic intensity, such as the emergence of the executioner from the ground with the dripping head, which take the breath away. For the Dance, something extraordinary happens. The public scene dissolves into a dream-like private show for Herod, the use of a child’s doll implying that this has been going on for a very long time. The seven veils are replaced by a series of rooms, brilliantly realised technically and, like much of what we see, bold and unexpected.
Conductor Phillipe Jordan takes Strauss’ great sweeps of sensuousness and violence in his stride creating a swirling backdrop to the human drama, despite some fluffed notes in the brass on the first night. There is great tenderness and awe in the Christ passages.
All told, this is an evening that numbs the senses and makes the head spin. McVicar, a director who rarely puts a foot wrong, has once again put his stamp on a great work, making you view it afresh.