Richard Strauss - Salome
NI Opera, 2015
Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Giselle Allen, Michael Colvin, Robert Hayward, Heather Shipp, Adrian Dwyer, Carolyn Dobbin, Paul Curievici, Nick Sales, David Lynn, Conor Breen, Cormac Lawlor, Brendan Collins, Padraic Rowan, Rory Musgrave, Hayley Chilvers
Grand Opera House, Belfast - 6 & 8 February 2015
The Grand Opera House in Belfast has never seen anything like it. Oh, I'm sure it has seen its fair share of Oscar Wilde plays, theatrical violence and gore, and even a little bit of nudity on occasion, but almost certainly never together. It's in opera terms however that Salome is a new experience for audiences at the Grand Opera House. The Belfast opera-goer has - in my experience at least over the last 25 years - never been subjected to an opera as intense, shocking and set to a production challenging to both delicate and not-so-delicate sensibilities as last weekend's Salome. That's testament to the ability of Strauss's opera to still have such an impact over 100 years after it was written, but it's also an indication of how NI Opera has been steadily upping the dose of less common but vital works to wean the audience away from the relatively safe fare of Mozart and the Italian bel canto repertoire.
It's ironic in this respect that the two most challenging opera works to appear on the stage of the Grand Opera House under NI Opera's brief term of office, have been adaptations of Oscar Wilde plays - Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest and Strauss's Salome. Who would have thought that Oscar Wilde's gently amusing late-Victorian domestic dramas could still be the source of so much shock and subversion? What both operas have in common is the ability to translate the genuine transgressive and subversive challenges to conventional social, family and sexual mores of Wilde's period into a more modern context where they still have impact and relevance. The relative rarity of performances of Wilde's dramas perhaps indicates that the nature of opera, with its timeless musical language, seems to be better placed to present Wilde on the stage nowadays than traditional theatre.
Particularly when you see it done in a performance like this. The key towards representing Richard Strauss's Salome on the stage has always been that of preserving the essential mood. Strauss's score (a challenge in itself) represents the florid decadence and dark sensual undercurrents of Wilde's play to perfection - and takes it further - but there's a risk of losing some of the seething Oriental lusts and the subversive religious flavour of the work if it is taken out of its Biblical context. I personally haven't seen any production of Salome that has risked straying too far from its original setting, so it's surprising and very daring of Oliver Mears to do so for a Belfast audience by setting it in what looks like the protected and security monitored estate of a drug baron or corrupt wealthy businessman in the deep American south.
What is more surprising is not only does the work lose not a fraction of its dark intensity, but by divorcing the work from its Biblical setting it actually reveals much more of the intent and hidden meaning of Oscar Wilde's original play. Which, it seems, when performed as well as it is here, can only enhance what Strauss brings to the work musically. A lot of the reason for it being quite so powerful, it has to be said, has to do with the performance of the Ulster Orchestra, its numbers boosted here to take on Strauss's huge orchestral arrangements, as well as the impressive direction of Nicholas Chalmers to channel and deliver those forces at the appropriate points with subtle but devastating impact. Even though Belfast received its first ever staging of a Wagner opera last year (The Flying Dutchman), it has rarely witnessed musical forces wielded so powerfully in a fully staged opera as in these two NI Opera performances of Salome.
And when I say fully-staged, that is vital to the impact of any opera, particularly when the music, the staging and the performance work hand-in-hand. If the revealing of a dark underbelly of American society with suggestions of abuse and incestuous relationships within the family unit inevitably brings to mind the films of David Lynch, director Oliver Mears nonetheless carefully avoids the Kyzysztof Warlikowski route of direct movie cross-over references. Likewise, Mears wisely sidesteps any local religious context, even if NI Opera are not afraid to risk the wrath of religious fundamentalists in the province with their last-minute announcement of a "content change" to introduce a dancer appearing nude for ten seconds into the production. While that didn't produce any serious controversy this time, it did result in predictable outrage from a few rent-a-quote extremists, clearly unfamiliar with the work, unable to recognise the irony of accusations of introducing 'sensuality' into a Biblical story that centres on the Dance of the Seven Veils. In any event it would turn out that there was nothing in any dance that could be as controversial as a fully-clothed blood-soaked Salome writhing on top of the decapitated head of John the Baptist at the finale.
There were nonetheless a few murmurs of surprise from the outset when the curtain rose on Friday night to reveal a near full-sized house with a roof, on the heavily guarded and high-fenced compound. In the house, a rather sleazy-looking bulging-waisted, balding Herod with his wife Herodias, dressed in a jump suit and heels like a character out of Dallas or Dynasty, preside over a rowdy dinner party. Guarding a yellow cistern, from which the booming voice of the prophet emanates, stand a nervous group of guards wearing cowboy hats, some stripped to the waist, carrying rifles. Seen through a large window, the seediness of the dining room setting, where a pawed-over and harassed Salome looks wistfully out at the moon, is characterised brilliantly by the boorish behaviour of Herod's Jewish guests. As they settle down to watch a projected porno movie after the meal, outside the house Salome pours her lustful thoughts out to the frightful masculinity and shocking pronouncements of the imprisoned prophet Jokanaan.
What this brings out is not so much any imposition of modern sensibilities onto old Biblical material - although that is a valid aim, and one that does update the relevance of the play - as much as bring you right back to the source material and consider what Wilde was saying about the hypocrisy of society and religion, repression of illicit sexual desires, and the corrupting influence of dysfunctional family life. By making you think about how that relates to Wilde's own secret life and how that comes out in his works ("Each man kills the thing he loves..."), it's not so much taking the work back to Victorian times, as much as doing exactly what Strauss does with his musical interpretation of the work. It's delving far beneath the surface drama - as torrid, violent and twisted as it is - to the darker places that those repressed human impulses arise from. Salome oversteps the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable (by anyone's standards - but all the more so here for effect), and as such, she must die, condemned by the hypocritical authorities.
It was amazingly premonitory and daring of Wilde to write like this - right before his conviction for 'unconventional' sexual practices and his death soon after. NI Opera's setting of the work, Mears direction, and particularly the performances, explore all the facets and the resonances of the source, and bring it out meaningfully and magnificently without having to make any direct references. Salome ought to be shocking, still ought to take your breath away in its approach to its subject matter, and musically it should pretty much hammer you into submission, and that is entirely the impact achieved in the NI Opera production. To do that, it also needs singers of ability and sheer nerve to not only take on the challenges represented by the characters, but even to surpass the content and rise over the vast orchestral surges and cacophonic flourishes that make these characters and their dark desires convincing and horribly compelling.
As Salome, Belfast soprano Giselle Allen demonstrated why she is also a big name on the international opera circuit, her voice powerful enough to carry over that huge orchestral sound arising from the pit. It was a performance however that was, as it needs to be, sensitive to the changing moods, dipping softly but still able to be heard, rising to anger and violent expression and sustaining that for a large part of the unbroken one hour and forty-five minutes of the one-act performance. As well as managing this with barely a waver of pitch, strong at every register (in a role that is testing at every register), Allen also brought a degree of subtlety and conviction to the characterisation in her revulsion towards Herod and in her wild desires for Jokanaan, with recognition that there is a connection between those two states. Everything about this performance was mesmerising - you couldn't take your eyes off her for a second. If you haven't got a Salome like that, you haven't got a Salome.
Fortunately, the NI Opera production also had a prophet of immense charisma in Robert Hayward's Jokanaan. A terrifying presence, booming even from within the cistern tank, his appearance on the stage, dripping grime, gravely intoning dire warnings of the the coming of the Son of God and apocalyptic damnation for all the sinners present created a tremendous impression, Hayward's huge voice carrying utter conviction as well as fanaticism. Heather Shipp's Herodias and Michael Colvin's Herod had a little more of a challenge at times rising above the orchestra - and the translated English text didn't always make their parts scan quite as well (or match Wilde's poetry) - but the performances were well-sung and delightfully characterised. Paul Curievici's First Jew and Adrian Dwyer's Narraboth stood out from an overall very strong supporting cast. If there were many things that the Grand Opera House has never seen the like of before in NI Opera's scandalous production of Salome, perhaps the most satisfying is that of largely home-grown talent like this being given the opportunity to really show what they can do.