There's a moment in 2001: a Space Odyssey when the planets align in a mega-eclipse and celestial rumblings herald an exultant burst of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. Something similar is happening at the Royal Opera House where David McVicar's account of the same composer's Salome has returned for its third revival, restaged as in 2012 by Barbara Lluch. The production's got its ducks in a row and it makes a big noise.
At the last revival it was hard to focus on Strauss's score because the titular soprano's tuning was so grim. No such danger in 2018: Malin Byström is an electrical storm of a Salome, with all the notes and a belting presence in the opera's latter stages. Her voice may be a size too small for the part and her work in the opera's first hour lacking in physical expressiveness (it was lust from the neck up), yet I bought in to her performance. Strauss acknowledged the role's near-impossible demands when he declared that his little monster should be "a sixteen-year-old with the voice of Isolde"; but on balance I'd rather watch a singer whose voice is not at odds with her frame, which is the case here.
McVicar's fascistic 20th-century environment makes a compelling backdrop to the opera's shocks. Salome, the stepdaughter of Herod, is a mucky-minded brat whose sexual curiosity takes her to the darkest place imaginable, so it makes complete sense for her to have been raised in a depraved world where sex is cheap and casual assault a fact of life. Es Devlin's grime-ridden below-stairs set, a side of pork hanging unhygienically in a distant storeroom, only misses some scuttling rats - although there's human vermin aplenty on display.
'Heady stuff and heavy-duty'
Into this hell's kitchen descend Herod (tenor John Daszak, mesmerising) and Salome's mother, Herodias, whom Devlin dresses, somewhat ill-advisedly, to resemble Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films. Michaela Schuster was terrific in the role, her protectiveness towards Salome as clear as her horror that Herod should let her dangerous daughter ask for anything she wants, but the look undermined her. It's Sodom, not 'Salò Days'.
McVicar's Freudian take on the Dance of the Seven Veils is a visual coup: the real world recedes and an abstract journey unfolds in which hints of Salome's abuse at the hands of Herod explain the dead moral state she has reached. Byström and Daszak enacted their sequence stylishly but it remains a curio, a rare example of McVicar overriding the music with an unrelated idea.
David Butt Philip excelled as the besotted, biddable Narraboth whose initial act of weakness triggers the horrors, and Michael Volle was majestic as Jokanaan (John the Baptist), even though his disembodied head got more stage time than he did. The German baritone, his voice as focused, expressive and charismatic as ever, invested his underwritten character with a God-given gravitas.
Henrik Nánási conducted with an apparent determination to decongest Strauss's thick orchestration, and his approach allowed some startling detail to emerge. Salome is a remarkable, restless score - typically it's built on angular phrases that give way to brief moments of airy tonality, then plunge back into the abyss - and the Hungarian maestro negotiated its mercurial structure with assurance. The first appearance of Jokanaan's heroic motif has never sounded more Mahlerian than at his initial entrance, nor more fetid than when Salome cradled his bloody head.
Heady stuff and heavy-duty. Byström won't have been the only person who went home in need of a long, hot shower.