Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Salome @ Royal Opera House, London

8, 12, 17, 21, 23, 26, 30 January 2018


Michael Volle & Malin Byström
(Photo: Clive Barda)

It’s an unconventional staging, but every aspect grabs you from the first rapturous cries of the doomed Narraboth to the final frenzied raptures of Salome’s last words. David McVicar’s production, with Es Devlin’s brilliant designs, has been crisply revived by Bárbara Lluch and features a cast which does justice to its vision of lost innocence, corruption and misplaced ardour.

Malin Byström was making her house role debut as Salome, and it was an impressive one; fortunately the concept of the part here is all steel and fervour, omitting entirely that irritating ‘little girl’ whining sometimes heard in this role. She rises to her big moments with impassioned ardour even though her voice is, in theory, on the small side for Strauss. When she sang of ‘das Geheimnis der Liebe’ surrounded by the halo of violins and muted trumpets, there was a glimpse of greatness.

Michael Volle seems born to play Jokanaan, his singing as magisterial as the words he utters and his characterization absolutely convincing. Jokanaan’s narrative about Christ’s preaching to his followers at the Sea of Galilee is marked ‘Mit grösster Wärme’ and Volle gave it exactly the right sense of devoted ardour.

John Daszak’s Herod was another fine interpretation; the conception of him seemed, in some ways, to be akin to Daddy Warbucks in Little Orphan Annie – indeed, Salome herself bore some resemblance to that iconic child. The sense of patriarchal authority which Daszak exuded made him especially repulsive, and the astringent edge to his singing was ideal for the role. Michaela Schuster’s Herodias was a similarly adept piece of casting, her opulent voice the perfect complement to her conflicted person.


Malin Byström
(Photo: Clive Barda)

The smaller parts were cast from strength, with David Butt Philip adding yet another outstanding assumption to his growing list as an unusually credible Narraboth – no sniggers when this one dies. Kihwan Sim and Dominic Sedgwick made strong impressions as the two Nazarenes, and Christina Bock was a promising Page. Naaman, the executioner, was stunningly played by Duncan Meadows as a ‘blood-bolter’d’ servant – when he holds up the head, you can’t help but think of Blake’s ‘Ghost of a Flea.’

Henrik Nánási, the former Music Director of Komische Oper Berlin, directed the orchestra with clarity and sensitivity, seldom overwhelming the singers and pointing up the phrases in an almost Mozartian style. There was an uncloying freshness to the playing, as if it were sparkling clean in contrast to the grime on stage.

The production is certainly different, but it is rooted in sound stagecraft, with the possible exception of the extreme height of the dinner table set, since this might not be clearly visible from the upper parts of the house. The dual world – opulence and brilliance above, tawdriness below – is finely delineated, and the entrance of John the Baptist (both initially and as a severed head) is stunningly done, the man clambering Florestan-like from a cistern and the decapitated head held aloft in a striking visual coup.

The Dance of the Seven Veils was based more on the Seven Veils of Illusion than on the usual striptease – some might think perversely, given Byström’s physique du Rôle – and it made for a gripping scene. As Salome and Herod danced, we saw moments of her life – a doll of childhood, a diamanté encrusted dress such as Cinderella might wear, a light bulb disintegrating, a bodice slowly unzipping – evocatively shown in the video designed by 59 Productions. An unusual take, but very convincing.

It’s a production without a significant weak link – the soldiers (Levente Paul, Alan Ewing) the Jews, led by Dietmar Kerschbaum and Jeremy White), John Cunningham’s Cappadocian and Louise Armit’s slave, as well as the ‘Guests of Herod’ are all integrated parts of the whole, which gives the impression of tight ensemble and unified concept. You might miss the ‘usual’ dance, or feel that there is not quite enough in the way of histrionics, but you won’t be disappointed in the singing or the production as a whole.

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