David McVicar's Royal Opera Salome has made it to DVD with astonishing speed. Having only opened in February, Opus Arte's release must set some sort of record. And with generous extra features (the episode of ITV's South Bank Show on McVicar and the preparations for the production is, for once, a genuine bonus, and I rather enjoyed the brief Jackanory-style synopsis) and excellent picture and sound, there's no evidence of any compromises having being made in the rush to get this into the shops.
And since the production failed to win me over on its first night (reviewed in detail here), I was interested to see how it would come across on DVD. The performance we have is an amalgamation of three separate evenings and sees the reinstatement of Thomas Moser as Herod, the American tenor having been indisposed on the opening night, replaced by Robin Leggate.
The effect of McVicar's split stage design, Herod and his guests only partly visible above the main location of the drama, a hybrid kitchen/bathroom/torture chamber below, is unfortunately mainly lost in this recording. Visible a couple of times early on, it seems as though those in charge of the camera direction have, probably correctly, decided to focus on what's going on below.
In the theatre, from the stalls at least, the split design was effective, so it's a shame to lose it on DVD. However, there are also considerable gains, mainly in the ability to enjoy the fine acting of Michael Volle's Jochanaan and Nadja Michael's Salome. Volle plays his role with nobility but also a considerable animal strength: his anger at having been cooped up in the cistern adds a powerful extra dimension to Salome's attraction to him. Volle also, without doubt, provides the finest singing of the performance: his voice is powerful, rich and authoritative. Michael's Salome exudes sensual allure and she winds herself, serpent like, around Jochanaan with beautiful, long-limbed gestures. Vocally, she has some strong moments but too often her intonation lets her down. This is most obvious, and harmful, in the role's several floated passages; in her final scene the fact that on several occasions she ends up somewhere far off the actual note undermines the music: these moments of greatest passion lose their appeal and therefore also their shock.
Joseph Kaiser sings Nabarroth well and acts convincingly but Thomas Moser never really sounds or looks fully at ease as Herod. Michaela Schuster's Herodias is borderline caricature but delightfully unhinged; all the other parts are well taken by Covent Garden regulars. Philippe Jordan leads an account of the score which tends to keep a fair amount in reserve, giving some of the climaxes short shrift early on. However, he produces a final scene of real power with the orchestral sound extremely well captured.
While this DVD brings a welcome opportunity to reassess David McVicar's production I must admit that for all its undeniable brilliance of execution and profusion of ideas, it often seems to water down the opera's impact. As the camera followed the action, on several occasions I found myself distracted by the other characters in an array of different costumes littering the stage. And while in the theatre Duncan Meadows' executioner had seemed to be tucked away discretely in the background for most of the opera, he is now more noticeable as a constant presence, underlining the tendency to treat non-speaking roles with disproportionate significance that, for me, also marred McVicar's ENO Rosenkavalier. The moment when Herodias strips him of his trench-coat so that he can descend into the cistern to perform his duty unimpeded by clothing is disturbingly contrived. Again, I was left unshocked by his bloody reappearance, head in hand, and found the intended brutality of his method of despatching Salome herself – tossing her around like a rag-doll – verged on the comic. Similarly, while in the theatre McVicar's rethinking of the 'Dance of the Seven Veils' had at least struck me as brilliantly realised, I found it less convincing second time round and can imagine it paling on repeteaded viewing on the small screen
Perhaps the greatest disappointment with the production is the fact that the decision to set the production 'in a debauched palace in Nazi Germany' is purely aesthetic, shunning that decisions' political implications. The fact is also that the excess of blood and pointless nudity, and the complete amorality of the setting takes the opera out of its context, the context which is an essential element of its ability to shock us still today.
By Hugo Shirley
Read a detailed review of this production when it opened, here