Saturday, 9 June 2012

Salome, Royal Opera

Played out in a 1920s upstairs-downstairs establishment, David McVicar's Salome for the Royal Opera amplifies all the moral polarities in Wilde's play and Strauss equally schizophrenic score. The cistern in which John the Baptist is kept is a truly deep-n-dark pit, given that the main stage is the basement of Herod's house. The bizarre characters that populate the main area range from the expected soldiers and lackeys to whores and a remarkable, solid character with a machete - the executioner. The side of pork hanging in the background is not a fact of the kitchen but more Bacon-like decoration. This is not just a foul place but a dangerous one, not only to inhabit but look upon. The big coup of the evening (for me) was the treatment of the formal dance, which takes place in an almost 2-d plane after the permanent set has been exploded. Salome dances through a sequence of rooms in which she is seen to grow up in body but little else. It's a fine, economical conceit, in keeping with the opera and benefiting from well-worked transition.

It takes some doing then to relate that the big impact of the evening is from Andris Nelsons in the pit. It's a glorious score, whirling to face the exotic, the horrible and the elysian and we get it all from the company's Orchestra. I found myself so tuned into the music that I realised I hadn't heard the texture of the pre-Psycho cello notes as the executioner goes to find the condemned prophet. Not so much stabs as dull glints of the sword in the gloom (Salome hears the sword clatter to the floor after the act, which is not reflected in the score - such is the imaginary half-consciousness of the music at this stage) it's music that has some sort of realism in its horror.

The only drawback is that, partly due to the singers and partly because of the nature of the work, the balance just didn't quite work. Nelsons was forced to hold the band back from the all-out hammer blow at climaxes so that characters on stage could be heard. Angela Denoke produced her best singing in still, intimate soliloquy, the best reflection of the child-woman contradiction that the show has to offer and the band faithfully tried to ally with that. Rosalind Plowright's Herodias was flawlessly executed, Will Hartmann's Narraboth a beautiful, lyric start to the opera and the Jewish lobby well sung and acted.

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