Monday 15 January 2018

Salome at the Royal Opera, or Finding Insufficient Menace

Note: A review of the performance on Monday 8th January 2018.

I first saw this production by David McVicar back in its original run in 2008. I wasn't wild about it then, but it's been a while since I've heard this work live so I thought I'd give it another go. I got on better with the production than I remember doing first time round, but as a whole the evening didn't quite find that taut feeling of menace which I think a great Salome really needs.

McVicar sets the evening in the palace loos – though this now seems subtler – possibly it's been altered, or I was sitting in a different location. Above is Herod's dining room and a spiral staircase down which Salome, and others descend as the action proceeds. During the Dance of the Seven Veils the rooms fade away, and we are presumably in either Herod's or Salome's minds, or a combination of the two – it isn't quite clear enough. The general effect throughout is to ramp up the sordidness – particularly at the beginning with female nudity. I can see why this is so – it is a pretty sordid story. But I can't help feeling that less and more subtle would pack more punch. There are two particular issues with making it so sordid from the outset – there's nowhere for the production then to go, which hinders ramping up the dramatic tension, and for me at least it hinders finding any sympathy with the protagonists – the best versions find more moral complexity in it. In his direction of the principals McVicar has flashes of insight – particularly in interactions late on between Herodias and her daughter, but characters aren't sufficiently sustained across the totality of the piece. There are also some simple oddities – why on earth the executioner has to be stripped naked to do his job escaped me, and excesses – there's too much wandering about aimlessly from members of the court and their servants – particularly the periodic exiting during Salome's final solo when the focus should really be completely on her.

Lastly, on the production side, there's McVicar and choreographer Andrew George's take on the Seven Veils. The psychology here which seemed to me to be getting at Salome's loss of innocence through the first couple of iterations works okay – though I wasn't always convinced by props and projections. But after that it seems to lose its way and again by having Herod all over her to begin with it doesn't leave itself enough room to develop.

Musically the evening was a bit of a mixed bag. The finest singing was on the male side. Michael Volle gave a strong account of Jokanaan, and if his great scene didn't quite find the last ounce of electricity the fault lay elsewhere. There was strong character work in the opening scene from David Butt Philip (Narraboth) and Christina Bock (Page). The little ensemble groups of soldiers and Jews were generally well sung, though I've heard interpretations that got more punch out of the latter's arguments. In the title role there is much to commend about Malin Bystrom's performance. In the production's best moments, perhaps particularly what struck me as her self exposure over Jokanaan's cistern after he's been re-imprisoned, she finds real stage presence. Vocally, she often sings very beautifully, and there is power at the top end. But from my amphitheatre perch I didn't feel there was always quite power enough, particularly at the lower end of her range. I've also heard more compelling performances of the chilling, haunting communing with the head – I feel one ought to be awfully held through that whole sequence, it should be impossible to look away, and Bystrom didn't quite find that. I also wasn't wholly convinced by either John Daszak's Herod or Michaela Schuster's Herodias. I've heard the latter at Covent Garden on various occasions with usually mixed results. Here I found her rather shrill and with a tendency (this may be the production's fault) to overact – I still think the best Herodias I've ever heard live was Helen Field in Scotland some years back. I've heard fine performances from Daszak in the past, but to my ear the voice doesn't have the weight the part needs – vocally Herod needs to go toe to toe with Salome and he just wasn't able to do so. From the amphitheatre he often didn't sufficiently come across the orchestra.

Finally, on the podium was a conductor new to me – Henrik Nanasi. The House has a bit of a thin roster of revival conductors and Nanasi is another I don't feel in a hurry to hear again. He was best at drawing beauty from the orchestra (who played as usual very finely) and he was a sensitive accompanist to the singers, but he lacked that feeling of dramatic drive this score really needs. He couldn't conjure and maintain that feeling of menace, of threat that should underly the whole work. Even when there is a pause, it's always, I suggest, a restless one, on the edge – Nanasi too often lost the tension.

It was good to hear this fine work again live, but I don't think this is a production I shall want to see a third time, and it would be good if the House could strengthen its roster of revival conductors.

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