sun 19/11/2017

Salome, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Salome, Royal Opera

Salome, Royal Opera

Angela Denoke's mercurial Salome shimmers in Strauss's monstrously beautiful opera

Angela Denoke's mercurial Salome gets her heart's desire while monstermum Herodias (Irina Mishura) looks onAll images by Clive Barda

The first time I saw David McVicar's production of Strauss's hypersensuous shocker, I gaped in horrified wonder at the Pasolini Salò-style mise en scène but didn't find the action within it fully realised. When it came out on DVD, the close-ups won greater respect but there was still the problem of Nadja Michael's singing, hardly a note in true. Now it returns with Angela Denoke, an even more compelling actress with a far healthier soprano voice.

In league with Hartmut Haenchen's pacy conducting she makes you think first, what an incredible score, and only then, what a brilliant production. As with ENO's Tosca, you can't ask for more than that. The first time I saw David McVicar's production of Strauss's hypersensuous shocker, I gaped in horrified wonder at the Pasolini Salò-style mise en scène but didn't find the action within it fully realised. When it came out on DVD, the close-ups won greater respect but there was still the problem of Nadja Michael's singing, hardly a note in true. Now it returns with Angela Denoke, an even more compelling actress with a far healthier soprano voice. In league with Hartmut Haenchen's pacy conducting she makes you think first, what an incredible score, and only then, what a brilliant production. As with ENO's Tosca, you can't ask for more than that.

It's been said that nothing can live up to McVicar's opening tableau, where designer Es Devlin's evocation of the Pasolini film, hauntingly lit by Wolfgang Göbbel, features a naked girl, a floor-mopper and soldiers in a grimy clinical kitchen underbelly while guests of the awful Herods dine above. Yet with Denoke to hold our hand through accumulating horrors, on this occasion it just gets better, which is of course worse in dramatic terms. She metamorphoses utterly convincingly from a capricious teenage virgin - or at least a teenager as she might be played by an ageing Hollywood starlet, which is fine - to a woman of immortal but unquenchable yearning in the bloody awful mess of a denouement.

The voice is only just up to the demands of this impossible role, a 16-year-old with the voice of an Isolde, as Strauss once put it. Not every top note gets cranked to the pitch-perfect fullness it needs: Denoke doesn't have the opulence of Cheryl Barker, a superb Salome at ENO, or quite the luminous cute-but-mind-the claws kittenishness of her great forbear Hildegard Behrens (my overwhelming introduction to this masterpiece at Covent Garden). The voice blends with the powerful orchestra and is occasionally, inevitably, smothered by it rather than riding triumphant. Yet she does bring the right sense of spangled wonder to her opening scenes, and when relaxed in boredom or anticipation of the gift she's going to ask from her stepfather - the head of John the Baptist - the years seem to fall away. Her physicality is various and never excessive, as it often was from the fine singing actors in Tcherniakov's Aix Don Giovanni: unforgettable the way she paces for her reward around the desperate Herod like a caged lion, then suddenly does a little dance-skip which only ratchets up the tension.

SALOME-100701_0179-REUTERDENOKE-CBARDAOne-to-ones work as they never begin to do in the concurrent Boccanegra, which is impressive as McVicar's original concept is revived here by Justin Way. I've seen Johan Reuter's Jokanaan (pictured right with Denoke's Salome) taken to task for barking, but he didn't bark last night, though he was never allowed to make the prophet's rhapsodies smoothly beautiful either. It's important that the shaggy prisoner's rants do even more to turn Salome's wits than the depraved court around her, and in conjunction with Haenchen's forward propulsion, that was powerfully underlined here, culminating in a truly horrible curse over Salome's recumbent figure.

Gerhard Siegel's Herod (pictured below with Denoke) was a huge improvement on the strong-voiced but dramatically inert Thomas Moser in 2008. There was the right sort of black comedy in his increasingly batty offers to Salome of anything but the head, compounded by the steely cut of Irina Mishura's harridan wife. Though his smaller, rounder figure looks faintly ridiculous up against Denoke's tall personage, there was nothing funny about the elaborately staged Dance, a psychodrama of seven doors like Bluebeard's Castle as Andrew George's choreography stylishly underlines the child abuse Denoke has already conveyed in her horror at being touched by either of her elders. Yes, it turns into a dripping Viennese waltz, and when have we ever seen it danced as such?

SALOME-100701_0309-DENOKESIEGEL-CBARDAThere's strong supporting singing from Adrian Thompson, leading the theological bickering that needs the tightest of guidance which it got here, and Andrew Staples as the infatuated Narraboth, but it's the easy, unfussy decadence or oppression suggested by the actors which really fleshes out the setting. Haenchen's conducting inspires confidence from the first, spacious clarinet run conjuring the Palestinian night. He whips up a precise storm in the vortexes of frustrated desire, makes sure there are no longueurs in the early stages, as there can be with a less expert pacing, finds funny little rhythmic kinks in the dance and encourages eerie string slides - never more striking than the smeary lines after Salome has kissed the head - as well as bubbling woodwind detail. I've heard more refined accounts, but never one which kept the momentum going better or gave one more cause to marvel at the fact that, 105 years on, Strauss's score has lost none of its power to stun and bewitch.

 

MORE RICHARD STRAUSS ON THEARTSDESK

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera (2009). Uneven revival of John Schlesinger’s 25-year-old production

Capriccio, Grange Park Opera (2010). Lively staging, stylish singing and a welcome intrusion of wartime reality

Ariadne auf Naxos, Welsh National Opera (2010). Hoffmansthal's libretto is all about fidelity. This updating is faithful, up to a point

Angela Denoke as Salome at the Royal Opera HouseIntermezzo, Scottish Opera (2011). Soprano Anita Bader graces a Klimtian take on Richard Strauss's domestic comedy

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Mariinsky Opera (2011). Strauss's massive fairy tale makes a rare outing in Gergiev’s musically strong venture at the Edinburgh Festival

Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera (2012). David McVicar and Edward Gardner deliver a riveting account of Strauss's popular opera with Amanda Roocroft as the Marschallin

Intermezzo, Buxton Festival (2012). Fine style in Strauss's comedy-with-feeling

Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (2013). Strauss's opera reluctantly enters the Battle of Britain courtesy of a young German director

Capriccio, Royal Opera (2013). Renée Fleming leads superlative cast in concert performance of Strauss's operatic debate

Elektra, Royal Opera (2013). Revival with Christine Goerke in the title role hits the horrid heart of the matter in Strauss's poleaxing masterpiece

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera (2014). Compelling dream-interpretation of Strauss's myth graced by fine singing and Semyon Bychkov’s conducting

Der Rosenkavalier, Glyndebourne (2014). Richard Jones finds new order in rococo comedy for music, with Kate Royal as the Marschallin

Salome, BBC Proms (2014). Nina Stemme stuns with Donald Runnicles and the Deutsche Oper Berlin in a giddying account of Strauss's incredible score at the Proms

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera (2014). Two nymphs are the real revelation in this revival of evergreen hybrid

Salome, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (2015). Lise Lindstrom steals the show from Karabits and Bournemouth SO as a sensual Strauss anti-heroine in concert

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera (2016). Robert Carsen's handsome production with Renée Fleming is elevated by superb orchestral playing

Comments

I was not really looking forward to seeing this revival having read the incredibly negative Telegraph and FT reviews, but found a glimmer of hope in Mr Nice's view. While conceding that this is far from being the perfect Salome, it seemed to me that the other organs' correspondents took a rather unforgiving and mean-spirited stance from the offset. Mr Nice's review reflected what I saw and heard last night far more than the other reviews I read. No, it was not a patch on the ROH's recent Elektra (with Susan Bullock in the title role) nor ENO's last Salome (with Cheryl Barker) but they were both amongst the greatest experiences I've had in a opera house and this Salome is hardly a failure. There is much to enjoy in this revival if one is not determined to bellyache about it. .

Thanks for that, John, but I had to say I disagree about the recent Elektra: you'd have found a real 'bellyache' from me there, though I thought Susan Bullock was good - not enough in that cataclysmic piece. Not happy with Elder's pacing of it, either, which is why Haenchen was so refreshing here - no attempt to monumentalise. Still, that Elektra was infinitely better than the first time around with Lisa Gasteen and leaden conducting from Bychkov. Taken all round, this was the most satisfying Salome I've seen - and I've seen rather a lot.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters