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Wednesday 6 June 2012

Salome at the Royal Opera House


This is the third outing of Dave McVicar's Salome and still Covent Garden haven't found a Salome to do it justice.

McVicar's production updates the piece to the 1930s (in Germany?), in the decadent house of a dignitary who is throwing a dinner party "upstairs" in a sort of Downton Abbey set up (I'm sort of joking, but only sort of). The "downstairs" is where the opera takes place, and it's a squalid, bare bulbed cavern, all tiled with art deco designs. Dotted around are soldiers, damaged young women in various states of undress, jittery cleaners, and other undesirables: damaged goods. This is a bit of a McVicar trope to have extra-itis - to set the scene, but the opera in a social context, etc. etc. As usual, it is only sometimes successful - often its a bit distracting, and isn't quite trusting enough of the audience's imaginations - one often feels that more could be said with less. With one major exception the story remains exactly the same - completely in line with virtually all McVicar productions, he's not interested in a radical reinterpretation of the composer's central idea of the plot, just a very detailed interpretation of that vision. Angela Denoke's acting particularly is superbly detailed and directed and she stalks around with great poise, able to strike those characteristic '30s poses with lazy sexual charisma. She doesn't quite seem frenzied enough in the climaxes though, resorting to a sort of 6 year old's tantrum of shaking her arms with rage, and in the final scene seems both dejected and gloating, rather than ecstatic and exalting - a greater "journey" for the character would have made the drama live more. And this opera really needs it - the direction of Salome really needs to hold us through the moments of crudity and dross in the score, the dull patches (eg, the Jew's chorus, the terrible Nazarine duet, and set pieces of this ilk), the slag that muddies the stretches of genius.

In this production, it is a bit of a mystery what appeal Jochanaan holds for Salome - he's filthy and angry as usual, but here he doesn't seem to posses the purity and irreducible spirituality that is the hook that draws Salome and fires her obsession. Visual and dramatic relief from the single set comes in the productions finest moment, a dream/historic sequence during the Dance of the Seven Veils, here a row of seven doors that show how Salome's gradually acquiesces to Herod's will, or rather manipulates him slowly into giving her what she wants. Naturally this ends with sex. Most moving and stirring are her frantic attempts to cleanse herself as she reconciles herself to what she has to do in order to get what she wants. It's not always exactly perfectly clear (I think a lot of people didn't fathom it, and just think its meant to show child abuse), but somehow it doesn't matter I think, subliminally its significance registers, and prepares us for the final scenes (as I said, in the event slightly mishandled.)

As already mentioned, Angela Denoke acts this part brilliantly, but unfortunately vocally she really doesn't come up to scratch. The voice is just about big enough to take on the role, but there's the sense that she's only just holding on all the way - there's not just a jaw shake, the entire aperture of the mouth vibrates giving a horrible wobble on top. In fact there's no natural vibrato left on top - she'll just try and squeeze out the right note as a pure tone and let the wobble do its thing. And this part is so high lying (whilst also requiring a bottom F#/Gb) that this really is a big problem in the role. It's also why so many sopranos come to grief in it - its a dramatic soprano role, but with the tessitura of a lyric one. Not many sopranos can do it full justice. She was also consistently quite flat. There was no sense of line, disastrous in Strauss' cantilenas and the most revealing moment as why this was came where she sang "Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen!" in the final scene which is all sung on the same note - between every note there was a complete relaxation of the chords and she had to scoop back up to the same note each time.

Egils Silins was a bit of a dry voiced Jochanaan, but certainly had the power. Sometimes the note was a little difficult to distinguish from just pure bellowing, but there's no wobble at least. Best vocally of the major quartet of characters was Stig Anderson as Herod who memorably created this character and matched the extremely demanding vocal demands of what is after all a character tenor role. Dramatically I wish he had let some of the quieter moments register a bit more by slowing down, though this may have been the conducting too. Rosalind Plowright has a huge voice, but unfortunately its only the huge climactic notes that come out in a major way, though she makes a very good Herodias, which is one of those roles that divas ease into retirement with.

Most of the small roles were very nicely taken. Peter Bronder's first Jew was extraordinary - a tone that could cut through steel, though its also quite an unpleasant sound too. Andrew Greenam has a very pleasingly rounded tone as First Nazarene too.

I had mixed feelings about what was happening in the pit. So often, the seething, teeming details of Strauss' score didn't come across at all and we got a rather indistinct mushy mess instead - this score thrives on clarity and gut busting power in equal measure, but each needs to be in its proper place, and this time we only got the latter in the major moments of the score. Perhaps it was where I was sitting or the ROH acoustics? But I actually saw two performances (one in the Amphi, and one at the back of the stalls) and it was largely the same. Anyway, moments of impact, but overall not a great performance. Who's the best Salome of the moment? Stemme?

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