Opera North

Philharmonic Hall 10/5/18

OPERA NORTH’s new production of Salome brings Richard Strauss’ shocking masterpiece to Liverpool in a bold concert staging. At the Philharmonic this Thursday night, there is no background scenery of Judea, instead, the orchestra dominates the stage, leaving only a narrow lip at the front for the singers to play out the drama. Nobody is wearing a toga. When Salome, played by American soprano Jennifer Holloway, enters the stage from the right, she is wearing a sequinned white ballgown.

The story, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play, is simple and powerful: Princess Salome performs the Dance of the Seven Veils for King Herodes, in return for the severed head of the prophet Jokanaan (better known as John the Baptist.) A question for me before the performance was whether this opera would be suited to a concert staging with the risk losing dramatic effect without the central dance as a set piece. In fact, Opera North make a convincing case for this approach. The drama is intensified by the absence of kitsch costumes and props, such as the severed head, which can have an inadvertently laughable effect when Salome kisses it.

The palpable atmosphere of the palace and its grounds is imbued with greater psychological depth as the characters look outwards, either off the sides of the stage, from where Jokanaan’s voice emerges with tremendous force; or out over the heads of the audience, where they perceive the moon, and Herodes foresees, “Something terrible is going to happen.”

"There is a gossamer shimmer over the surface of the music throughout"

Although they are not in costume or on a set, the performers do not cease to be actors. Each of them brings a concentrated expression of character to their section of the stage. Holloway, in particular, is exceptional as Salome. She had told Bido Lito! last month, “When I play a character, I must be able to understand and have a reason for every move, thought, word, note, and action.” This is in evidence in the performance, where Salome emerges as a complex but very human personality. When she is alone on stage, there is a sense of deep relief at being away from the eyes of the older men staring at her inside the palace. From the audience, we can almost feel the fresh air outside as she breathes it in. But there are always other characters encroaching on her reverie. In the opening sections, Holloway controls these interactions with girlish aloofness, and a playful steel in getting what she wants. In the final third of the opera, in an atmosphere of mounting dread, her playfulness turns into cruelty and sadism. Sheathed in a red spotlight, Holloway gives herself over to an insane joy as she receives the head of the prophet, and finally kisses it.

Other star performances are from Robert Hayward who plays Jokanaan with a mixture of defiance and vulnerability; and Arnold Bezuyen as Herodes, who brings a welcome lighter touch with some comic affectations, among the sinister, incestuous implications of the role. Oliver Johnston also stands out as Narraboth, his strong and yearning voice helps to establish a tone of lyricism in the opening section.
Holloway had told Bido Lito!, “The orchestra is actually the MOST important character in Salome!” and the players of Opera North really rise to the challenges of this score.

Strauss famously said that Salome should be played “like fairy music.” This touch of restraint, ruling over awesome forces, is manifest in the conducting of Sir Richard Armstrong. There is a gossamer shimmer over the surface of the music throughout, while at its depths, the lowest range of the brass and woodwind, in particular the grasping bass clarinet, evoke the dungeons of the palace, the deepest places of the subconscious. “How dark it is down below,” Salome sings, gazing into Jokanaan’s subterranean prison.

Opera North seem aware that the key to winning over a new generation of fans for opera may lie in productions like this one, removing the old-fashioned outfits and affectations, and returning to the psychological interiority of a work that offers new discoveries today, in an era of heightened awareness about sexual identity and abuse of power.

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