London is a chilly place. Yet on this particularly evening I leave my coat in the hotel and zip to Covent Garden. No room nor time for extra layers, since attending a performance in the Royal Opera House is a cluttered affair. The long lines for cloakrooms stifle with imperial colognes, and the tight, even if velvet, chairs make Ryanair seem socially responsible.
My weekend opera marathon starts with “Salome.” The House is packed, and I get warmed up fast by the heaters at the bar lounge.
A royal teenager, as the story has it, is molested by her decadent stepfather and develops an obsessive lust for an imprisoned priest. Rejected by the priest, she succumbs to her stepfather’s advances. In return, she demands the priest to be decapitated. She picks up the bloody head and makes love to it madly. The shocked stepfather orders her immediate execution.
There are surely more charming librettos in opera than this biblical passage enriched by Oscar Wilde’s queer allusions and splashed across the orchestra by a dissonant Richard Strauss. I am about to see a costly horror.
Living Up to Its Reputation
My curiosity goes back to a brief touch of a piano score a few years ago and then a recent exhibition in Victoria and Albert museum. There it was, a gory production by David McVicar, a museum object in its own right. The museum insights into that blunt staging suggested Lady Macbeth could be one day beautified.
The production lives up to its reputation: bold yet intelligent, complexly symbolic yet elegant. The biblical story is transported into an art deco palace with a modernist touch and keeps you thrilled till the last drop of blood.
The singing in German is rhythmic and sharply articulated, yet the conductor Henrik Nanasi creates a softly swirling palette of elusive and puzzling harmonies.
Looking the Part, But…
The rising Swedish soprano Malin Byström is praised for looking, walking, and singing the part rather naturally. Tall and slender, with a hint of resemblance to Cate Blanchett, she adds her Nordic touch to McVicar’s staging. Her movements, however, are quite constrained, almost self-aware if not stiff. The dance of seven veils has little to do with dancing. The stage installations stream alongside, creating a few dynamic moments. She makes several primal movements, changes her outfits, and pulls off a waltz with Herod, her stepfather, before being eclipsed by a sudden darkness, just at the moment of the supposed intercourse.
Malin Byström has a voice still in the making, and not every veil has been lifted off that voice yet. She sounds strong yet does not project the voice clearly. She has a rather rich middle register, yet her lower voice does not yield any of the meaty roar assumed by the score. It is her top notes that allow her stealing the show, and quite rightly so. This part could be the vehicle to make her grow vocally, if she stands the risk of losing her voice altogether to Salome.
Vocal Imperfection = Perfect Casting
John Daszak as Herod is believably repulsive, including vocally. At times nasal and forced, he struggles to hit precisely the highest notes, adding unintentionally to the dissonance of the score. Yet, this is rather an enhancement to the theatrical characterization.
Michaela Schuster, who plays Herodias, the mother of Salome and Herod’s wife, is a worn-out mezzo, who inspires very little sympathy due to an occasional wobble and cracks in her voice. At the same time, such casting for Salome’s parents is close to brilliant. The singers’ vocal imperfections make the drama more engaging, which is precisely, I would image, the director’s intended effect.
One voice stands out from the coarse chorus – David Butt Philip, who plays Narraboth, is a sweetly pleasant tenor, who is sometimes at odds with the dense avalanche of surrounding sound. He sings the part of a soldier, who idealizes Salome and stabs himself upon discovering her abnormal lust for the priest. There, in a pool of naïve blood, dies the only harmonious vocal instrument of the night.
A Vocal Titan
Enter Michael Volle, the priest, so much lusted for by Salome and by opera houses around the globe.
This is a voice without a rival. A lion in a cage.
Have I ever heard a voice of such sheer awe-inspiring power before? A mountain of flesh in rags, covered by brittle long hair. A pirate? An ogre? A lust for such a priest is incomprehensible. His singing is violent. He rejects Salome with a deafening vocal thunder. A capella, the effect is almost unbearable, paralyzing.
Part of an Orgy
The production’s most savage element is a nude executioner, whose beastly athletic body, covered in tanning oil and blood, gives an erotic thrill to quite a many in the audience. The opera’s hype is about Salome’s nudity that is supposed to blind the audience once the seven veils are danced off her body. Here, David McVicar leaves the soprano her veils and undresses the warrior-like executioner. Salome clings to his thighs, his chest, rubs against his back, yearning to soak herself in the priest’s blood. She is possessed by the medusa-like head of the priest. What unfolds is a nausea of visuals: an orgy in a slaughter house, if you like. I look at the audience around, who dress on Bond street and dine at Balthazar, and I feel horribly decadent. For a brief moment, I am part of this bloody orgy.
For the thrill-seekers, who have seen it all and felt it all, such theatrical stunts are surely invigorating and that is one of the success secrets of the production. Love it or hate it, it leaves you breathlessly impressed. The applause is ecstatic. A standing ovation. And the mock up head becomes a character itself. In a twist of accidental irony, during the curtain call, Michael Volle tripped on his character’s head, which was left on the floor by Malin Byström just before the final chords.
I flee the amphitheater into the bustling streets of Covent Garden. It’s chilly. I briskly walk back to the hotel. I need to have a dessert or take a shower – anything to switch my mind off the performance. Yet Salome’s story lingers on: a teenage sociopath, who discovered the call of her flesh and drowned herself in madness. Off with his head, for I want to kiss it.