What a great treat for me to be asked to review my favourite opera. Salome has been a musical touchstone for me from the first time I saw it as an opera student in 1988. Written in 1905, following the great era of nineteenth century romantic opera, it is modern and ancient all at once. If any opera could be said to be timeless, it is Salome. It is so perfect in its essential elements that it is as confronting today as when it was first performed 115 years ago.
No longer reliant on the structure of a traditional libretto, this piece is pure prose taken from Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome and translated into German by Hedwig Lachman. Composer Richard Strauss has fashioned the phrasing to suit the sweeping scope of his orchestrations. Here is where lyric and music come together in sublime unison. No melodic arias to sing on the way home, no happy ending.
Set in ancient Judea, the story takes place in the court of King Herod Antipas ll and follows his capture and imprisonment of the prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist). Herod has married his brother’s wife Herodias and Jochanaan is a vocal opponent of their union. Herod also lusts after her beautiful daughter, and his niece, Salome. Salome in turn lusts for the imprisoned prophet Jochanaan. This is the beginning of all the trouble. It is a story so many of us know from the Bible, and of course we’ve all heard of the famous “dance of the seven veils”.
In Victorian Opera’s production the role of Salome is brilliantly played by soprano Vida Mikneviciute. She is a fine actress with an astonishing and beautiful voice. I believe that of the three previous live productions of this opera that I have heard, this is the finest Salome of all. A difficult role to cast, it requires a singer with a very strong and flexible voice like a dramatic Wagnerian soprano, along with incredible stamina and dancing ability. At the same time she must be believable as a 17-year-old girl. Vida Mikneviciute has all this in spades and still has it right up to the final curtain. The opera is just over 90 minutes long, but Salome sings for 85 of them. It’s a big, big sing and it takes a vocal colossus to perform it as well as she did.
The role of Jochanaan is also a difficult one to cast; it needs a dramatic baritone able to sing this massive role and also be as thin and white as Salome describes him in the libretto. Daniel Sumegi sings the role beautifully and plays the drama of his character to the fullest, his voice rich and colourful above the dense and strident score. He is a tall, heavy man, dressed in a way, which made him appear anything other than wraith-like. It was embarrassing to hear sniggering throughout the auditorium when Salome describes him as being thin and pale like an ivory statue. A costume which disguised his build was required, but instead he was dressed in a tight singlet with things drawn on it with felt pen and assorted pieces of torn fabric hanging from his body.
Herod is sung magnificently by tenor Ian Storey. He plays the lecherous tetrarch to the hilt and sings the beautiful words of this role with passion, pathos and sorrow. Again, the best Herod I have heard yet. His voice is commanding and resonant, exactly right for this extraordinary work.
This is a terrific cast supported by the brilliant Orchestra Victoria directed by Richard Mills. The pit at the Palais is too small for this ensemble, so the percussionists spilled into the side aisles of the orchestra section of the front stalls, but that helped to bring the piece even closer to the audience. The long and sustained ovation at the finale showed just how invested they were in this amazing production. I was imagining how much better it could have been if the stage design and costumes had helped the performers and this wonderful composition, rather than hinder them.
The set looked wonderful: the ruins of a grand classical interior, with a small stage at the centre back, its red velvet curtain a mirror of the vast front curtain which fills the proscenium of the Palais. However, its layout made movement on the stage awkward for the performers. Much of the blocking avoided the centre stage, with action happening at the sides and back. That’s okay for those with the best seats, but those of us on the sides had to guess what was going on out of our sight line. Centre stage left was occupied by a pile of debris, behind which there was a pool of water. It did have some sort of purpose, but the cast spent a lot of effort avoiding it, even during the curtain calls.
Dressing singers as clowns and circus performers enjoyed notoriety some decades back, but this piece does not need to have such unnecessary distractions added to it. It is perfect as it is, its libretto so beautiful it can make you weep just to read it. I’d rather see it performed in street clothes than hear an audience scoff out loud at fine singers humiliated by their ludicrous, incongruous costumes.
The stage direction by Cameron Menzies lacks clarity, with lots of unnecessary stage business and overacting, which again distracted us from the magnificent work being performed. As an example, in one of the opera’s most pivotal scenes, where Salome tells Herod what she wants as part of their bargain, he tries to dissuade her with gifts of the rarest treasures. Here, during Herod’s most beautiful dialogue, as the prose pours from his lips, other characters are upstaging, pulling focus and trying to get laughs. The audience was cheated of this rarefied moment by coarse acting at its worst.
I was disappointed to see the role of Herodias, who many believe was the real power behind the throne, and who told Salome to demand Jochanaan’s execution, reduced to little more than a pantomime dame.
Where this production works best is in the scenes that are pared back and there’s nothing but the raw drama of the moment. There was such intensity in the scene where Salome declares her love to Jochanaan and he rejects her. You can see that she really doesn’t understand that this man does not fall under her spell like the ill-fated Narraboth (sung by tenor, James Egglestone). No, he loves his God and the new Messiah, and does not see her as any else but a wretched daughter of Sodom. Love and hate are both played here in equal measure. This is why Salome is timeless. It is about the human condition, about our failures and strengths. It doesn’t have to be re-imagined nor have layers added. It’s all there in the words and music.
Of course, it all comes down to the final scene where Salome gets her reward from Herod. All the while, she is cheered by her mother Herodias (Liane Keegan) for persisting in her demand. When she receives it, the audience was just as silent and shocked as they always are. No one expects it to happen, but we all know it must. By this time Vida Mikneviciute is in full flight, her voice a crystalline torrent of thrilling phrases and bell-like top notes. It is indeed rare to hear such brilliant singing, right there, live in front of you. No microphones, no enhancements, just the wonder of the human voice singing on the huge stage of the Palais. The audience was spellbound and roared as one in appreciation of this wondrous gift of art and music. A most memorable night at the opera.
This was a wonderful vocal performance of Strauss’s operatic masterpiece, despite the limits imposed by its staging. It is well worth going to hear Vida Mikneviciute and the brilliant cast and orchestra bring it to life.
Salome is sung in German with English surtitles.
Photo: Ian Storey as Herod and Vida Miknevičiūtė as Salome. Photo credit Craig Fuller
Jon Jackson reviewed Victorian Opera’s production of “Salome” at the Palais Theatre St Kilda February 22, 2020.