Review: Salome (Leeds Town Hall and tour)

Opera North sticks to dress suits and evening gowns for Strauss’ short, bloody shocker

Jennifer Holloway as Salome and Oliver Johnston as Narraboth in Salome (Opera North)
Jennifer Holloway as Salome and Oliver Johnston as Narraboth in Salome (Opera North)
© Robert Workman

A handful of semi-staged events have made it to these pages by dint of their theatricality. Opera North takes the palm for its searing production (by lighting guru Peter Mumford) of Wagner's complete Ring cycle in 2016, and that triumph was followed by Annabel Arden's imaginatively staged Turandot twelve months later. Therefore a pilgrimage to Leeds for this year's offering, Strauss's sordid Salome, was (to use an unfortunate phrase in the circumstances) a no-brainer. How would the new one from a company that practically invented a third way to stage opera be done? It's done like a concert.

The accredited director, PJ Harris, may disagree, but how else to describe an event where singers enter, stand in front of the orchestra, do their thing and exit, clad only in variations on concert gear? Granted, they were well drilled and off the book, but for reasons best known to itself Opera North has ditched the very thing that made these events unique.

Fortunately, Richard Strauss wrote a sense of theatre into every bar of his voluptuously rancid score and the forces assembled for this brief tour (only six performances remain, one each in Leeds, Perth, Warwick, Gateshead, Liverpool and Hull) have its measure. It was devastating: shorter in terms of minutes than an individual act of the Ring yet an experience as complete and mind-frying as one might wish for – or dread.

The steep-raked concert platform in Leeds Town Hall kept the Orchestra of Opera North in vivid view, and its players responded to Richard Armstrong's heartless, headstrong conducting with a display of utter virtuosity while in front of them a cast of many talents squeezed blood and bone out of Strauss' Oscar Wilde-inspired creation.

Four superbly chosen principals found the score's blackened, harrowing heart. Jennifer Holloway in the title role was a force of perverted nature as the spoilt brat who stamps her feet until her abusive stepfather, Herod Antipas, grants her wish and gives her the head of John the Baptist (‘Jokanaan') on a silver platter. The American soprano was a revelation: her darting eyes betrayed the character's broken soul while a fabulous voice threw Strauss' most challenging music almost artlessly to the four winds. If you are able to go, sit close enough to gaze inside her mind.

Arnold Bezuyen, like Holloway an Opera North debutant, provided a psychological field study as a Herod by turns lustful, panic-stricken and defeated. The Dutch tenor, who is something of a fixture in European opera houses, lent his heroic timbre to a performance of charismatic complexity. His foil was the Swedish mezzo Katarina Karnéus who, though luxury casting as his equally complicated wife Herodias (it's no wonder her daughter turned out as she did), was rarely granted a commanding position on the platform. Yet she still managed to dominate her scenes.

Company favourite Robert Hayward was a noble Jokanaan, his offstage pronouncements abetted considerably by the resonant nooks below the Leeds Town Hall organ pipes. The bass-baritone's one great onstage scene was dazzlingly, heart-rendingly executed. Add a supporting cast of consistent strength, with notable contributions from Oliver Johnston as the doomed Narraboth and Heather Lowe as the Page of Herodias, and this powerful concert of Salome became immersive theatre of the mind's eye.