David McVicar’s Pasolini-inspired staging of Strauss’ lurid one-acter, Salome, is back at The Royal Opera after a two-year absence, and it makes for a curiously uneven night’s entertainment – if indeed you can call it that. Watching an indolent teenager lolloping around the stage with a severed head that endlessly oozes oodles of blood may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it’s surprising, given the daily horrors that we have to endure on the news, that this opera still has the ability to shock.
This was my fourth encounter with McVicar’s vision of the piece and its confusion over what it’s trying to say is more apparent now than it was in 2008. Es Devlin’s split-stage design, linked by a spiral staircase allows us to peer ‘below stairs’ at the dank and oppressive environment inhabited by the palace’s workers. A carcass hangs in the distance, there’s blood on the floor, and naked light bulbs illuminate the space but what goes on there is confused – how does Salome fit into all of this and why are they keeping a rabid preacher in a cistern? Maybe, because the musical side of things was much stronger in its two previous outings, the lack of dramatic coherence has now become more noticeable.
The only principal held over from the last revival is German soprano Angela Denoke, who is one of today’s reigning Salomes. There are times when she can be mesmerising, she is also a consummate singing actress, but vocally she is unable to match the heady heights that she reached back in 2010. Some of her singing is expressive, and occassionally thrilling, but unfortunately she sings consistently flat for most of the evening – her pitch problems worsening by the end to such an extent that much of the final scene becomes an ordeal. Maybe she was having an off night, but in light of this performance her decision to cancel her Bayreuth Brunnhildes next year seems a wise one.
As Jokanaan, Egils Silins looks suitably manic as a hobo street preacher gone alarmingly off the rails, and sings with a fervour that borders on the hysterical but for sheer opulence of tone he can’t match either of his predecessors in this staging. Stig Andersen gives an oddly muted performance as Herod, whilst Rosalind Plowright is a forthright Herodias and just about manages to avoid chewing the scenery. All the supporting roles are nicely taken with Peter Bronder’s uncommonly vivid First Jew making his mark – he outsings almost everyone else on stage.
Andris Nelsons returns to the pit after his incandescent performances of Madama Butterfly last summer, but fails to create as much magic with the orchestra this time round. A few more rehearsals wouldn’t have gone a miss and although there are some exciting moments, and there’s plenty of detail in the playing, there just aren’t enough of them. Let’s hope that this was down to first night jitters and things come together more over the run.