Is it a dream sequence or some re-enacted ritual? I wasn't sure when the production debuted in 2008 and I'm still not, but either way the creepy fondling is far more disturbing than the more straightforward titillation of a conventional striptease dance.
But that's not to say director David McVicar spares us. His decadence is neither perfumed nor oriental. The curtains open to reveal the filthy tiled walls of a decrepit bunker. Designer Es Devlin kits it out with everything a ruthless dictator needs to survive an apocalypse - wine racks, urinals, a small army, a bevy of half-naked women and a dead pig. Evidently Herod is taking seriously the warnings his involuntary guest John the Baptist (here named Jokanaan) bellows up from the cistern beneath the floor. Half-visible upstairs, 1930's silks and jewels cluster round a heaving table for a bulimic last supper.
There's little pillowy exoticism from conductor Hartmut Haenchen either. His brutally realised interpretation is truly modernist, anticipating the flinty edges of Strauss's next and even more daring opera, Elektra. He paces superbly, never overwhelming the singers with the dense orchestration, and holding back enough to unleash the final climax with a terrifying force.
Strauss saw his Salome "as a chaste virgin, an Oriental princess, with only the simplest, most dignified gestures", not the petulant teenager of some portrayals. Slinking on in elegant silk, the German soprano Angela Denoke embodies his ideal. Her pure white tone suggests a particularly aristocratic innocence. Put the opera glasses away and she could even pass for sixteen - well, almost. A few of her highest notes land south of target without any loss of refinement in their delivery. To end her dance she's led offstage by Herod for something too gruesome, it's implied, to contemplate: something that pushes her over the edge. Her demand for the head of the prophet Jokanaan is the perverted expression of her wish for Herod's death. Finally handed the gory head by the naked, blood-soaked executioner, she rolls around the stage in triumph.
Johan Reuter's Jokanaan doesn't have the feral magnetism of Michael Volle in the first run. Though in truth it's hard to see exactly what so fascinates Salome, it's a powerful, big-lunged performance. Gerhard Siegel and Irina Mishura play Herod and Herodias mostly for (much needed) laughs. Andrew Staples finds the right balance of passion and desperation for the lovestruck Narraboth and amongst a creditable cast, Vuyani Mlinde's sonorous First Nazarene stands out.
- Jenny Beeston