David McVicar’s 2008 production of Salome, now enjoying its second revival, is a sordid affair which creates a visceral thrill with its raw depiction of the story’s gory elements, whilst also plumbing the psychological depths of the characters.
In this modern day production, Es Devlin’s set focuses on the underbelly of Herod’s palace. The lavishness of his halls is merely alluded to through a banqueting table that occupies a single strip high up the stage. The main area, in contrast, contains the entrance to the prison, but also acts as a catch-all cellar with its wine racks, hanging meats, dirty tiles, dim lighting and naked and semi-naked women to please the palace officials.
In the title role Angela Denoke provides a highly convincing portrayal of a princess used to getting her own way through both her position and allure. She emphasises her shrewdness through her analysis of the Jews, Egyptians and Romans at Herod’s banquet, but equally flaunts her sexual appeal to pursue her ends. In this way, her ordering of Jokanaan from the prison may originate from a precocious curiosity and liking for exercising power as much as from anything deeper.
Of course, her ability to see the mystical and saintly in Jokanaan’s eyes and mouth reveals her astuteness, but Denoke’s portrayal creates a full-blooded woman with a variety of traits and needs. Her rich, resonant voice is capable of immense elegance, and its multitudinous nuances create an impressive range of vocal effects across the evening. If occasional moments feel underpowered, or the odd intended effect is not achieved as well as it could be, for the vast majority of the evening Denoke’s performance is profoundly polished.
As Jokanaan, Egils Silins exerts a firm, deep, gritty bass voice, as befits his spiritual character. In his main scene, however, except when tackling the most overwhelming phrases, his voice does not quite feel forthright or focused enough. The effect is far better when he is singing from off-stage with his prophesies flooding into our realm. Rosalind Plowright is brilliant as a proud, haughty and demanding Herodias, while Stig Anderson is a balanced Herod, capturing the character’s ruthlessness, affability and fear in equal measure. Will Hartmann is a highly pleasing Narraboth, Sarah Castle an effective Page, while the cast’s ensemble dynamic frequently comes to the fore. When Herod promises Salome jewels that even Herodias didn’t know about, the latter looks immensely put out, while the Jews take notable exception when he offers her the High Priest’s mantle.
The real coup of the staging, however, is the Dance of the Seven Veils. This moves away from presenting the more directly seductive dance to explore Salome’s various emotional states and, through a child’s toy, hint at her history with Herod. In the only scene change of the evening, it occurs on a bare stage, lit with blue light from the side, and sees doors move from left to right to create new spaces every time that they stop. Through these Herod and Salome pass in scenes that see her dress up in fine garments before throwing them aside as she washes herself clean, and never allows the sight of Jokanaan in his prison to leave her mind.
Andris Nelsons provides an account of the score that while tight, balanced and precise, enables the orchestra to indulge in the chill, drama and sheer visceral thrill of Strauss’s enigmatic creation. If stage level already represents the underworld of the palace, then this sound must truly be coming from the depths of Hades, and it is all the more powerful for that.