Lawrence Kramer once described the character of Salomé, who flitted seductively through the imagination of so many artists at the end of the Nineteenth Century, as 'everyone's favourite fin-de-siècle dragon lady'.
The great achievement of André Engel's Welsh National Opera production of Richard Strauss's opera Salome is that it reclaims the Judean princess's innocence, encourages the audience's sympathy and thus intensifies the shock.
Helped by a hugely impressive assumption of the role by Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegårdh – making an auspicious UK debut in this run – Engel's conception of Salome as ingénue is persuasively communicated. On first confronting Jokanaan she introduces herself with girlish precociousness and when she takes an interest in Narraboth's dead body, it is more out of curiosity than any morbid fascination. Her final demand for Jokanaan's head comes not, it seems, from perverted, necrophiliac desire but from a longing simply to kiss the object of an immature crush. As a result, there are moments in her final monologue where she comes close to evoking one's pity as a love-starved if spoilt teenager; as the product of a loveless, broken family she is in desperate need of attention. It makes a definite change from the blood-soaked abandon one sometimes sees and results in a disquietingly ambiguous and more subtly disturbing experience; the tension between the final ecstatic triumph and the horror is intensified further as the stage is flooded with light in the last moments of Salome's monologue.
Vocally, Sunnegårdh was little short of ideal. Although she failed to make an impression early on while placed some distance back in the stage, she later employed her powerful and creamy soprano to thrilling effect. She can hardly be blamed for a couple of signs of tiredness during the monologue – some opacity crept into the timbre and her otherwise finely controlled vibrato began to broaden slightly on the quieter notes – but she'd kept enough in reserve to fill out her final, ecstatic phrases gloriously. In short, though, it's simply a joy to hear the role sung with such assurance and vocal allure.
One problem posed by this characterisation is that of the Dance of the Seven Veils, which in terms of plot is a straightforward transaction between Salome and Herod - she titillates in return for whatever payment she desires - but one that seems to predicate a knowledge of the psychology seduction that fits ill with this Salome's innocence. Here, then, one can't imagine Herod feeling as though he's got his money's worth with a Dance which consists mainly of tentative terpsichorean foreplay. Nevertheless, Sunnegårdh goes through her somewhat eccentric choreography with skill, and Herod at least seems to be getting what he's after.
The rest of the production offers little in the way of revolutionary ideas but gives us a straightforward concept, delivered clearly. Nick Rieti's sets, with walls and screens of ornate latticework, take us inside what looks more like the house of a wealthy North African merchant than a biblical palace, but is elegant and intimate. The all-important moon is visible through an opening at the back so we can see its symbolic metamorphoses clearly, from pale yellow to red, and then to eclipse during Salome's finale scene.
The central relationship between Herod and Salome is vividly drawn, with Peter Hoare outstanding in his portrayal of the tetrarch. Not afraid to play up the character's comic potential he, like his step-daughter, is not weighed down with knowledge of the 'fatal conclusion' which looms, nor is he paralysed with desire for Salome. Sally Burgess is vivid as Herodias, visibly impatient with her scatty and immature husband; they are doubtless atrocious parents but no monstrous caricatures.
Matthew Best had been forced to pull out of the first night due to a viral infection, but neverthelss decided to sing in this second performance. Unfortunately he was still very noticeably suffering. Rather left to fend for himself in terms of direction – notwithstanding a ritual chest-beating as he carries out a blessing for Narraboth – his performance will no doubt regain its complete authority as the voice returns to full health. There were a few rough edges in the supporting cast, but Robin Tritschler cut a fine, tall figure as an elegantly sung Narraboth and Anna Burford displayed an impressively rich mezzo as the Page.
Alongside Sunnegårdh, the other star of the evening was undoubtedly Lothar Koenigs, who takes over as Music Director of WNO in August. Having opted for Strauss's slightly 'reduced' scoring, which discards some his more exotic additions to the orchestra but still leaves us with over eighty musicians in the pit, one would expect greater clarity. However, alongside this clarity there was no great loss in richness and with the orchestra on outstanding form, Koenigs produced one magnificent, spine-chilling climax after another. The more conversational episodes were kept on a tight rein, tension was expertly managed but, in the end, it was his skill at whipping up the power and the passion of Strauss's score that made his conducting such a pleasure.
By Hugo Shirley
WNO's Salome heads on tour from next week and the dates and venues are as follows: Theatre Royal Plymouth 4 March; The Mayflower, Southampton 11 March; Venue Cymru, Llandudno 18 March; Birmingham Hippodrome 25 March; Milton Keynes Theatre 1 April; Swansea Grand Theatre 8 April; Bristol Hippodrome 15 April.
Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore
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