Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Strauss - Salome (Amsterdam, 2017)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2017

Daniele Gatti, Ivo Van Hove, Malin Byström, Evgeny Nikitin, Lance Ryan, Doris Soffel, Peter Sonn, Hanna Hipp, James Creswell, Roger Smeets

Culturebox - June 2017

It's isn't often obvious to judge what play or opera you are looking at just from a view of the sets alone in an Ivo van Hove production, but the set for the one-act drama of Salome for the Dutch National Opera is unmistakable. It might not be in the obvious Biblical setting, but the tones, contrasts and the basic functional requirements for Strauss's opera, or indeed Wilde's play, are all there. A large frigid moon hangs over the scene where an elegant room bathed in red light set to the back of the stage, and at the front is terrace like a circus arena with a hole at the centre.

Whether it's modern or Biblical, the hole is always more than just an entrance to the cistern where Jokanaan, John the Baptist is imprisoned in Herod's palace. It's a place where Herod and Heriodas want to hide the witness who speaks out about their decadence. It's also a gaping maw of desire, a dark abyss that exerts an irresistible attraction to their daughter Salome, a young woman who has grown up in this house of corruption. Those undercurrents of forbidden lusts are there in Wilde's original 1891 work, a play that still has the capacity to shock. Salome is a play dealing with a taboo subject whose importance still hasn't been fully acknowledged I feel, darker and more daring than the image of corruption and decadence in 'The Portrait of Dorian Gray', both of which now take a back seat to the image of Oscar Wilde as wit represented more often on stage by his Victorian comedies and social satires.

Richard Strauss however clearly recognised the power of the work and its underlying attack on social conformity when he first saw the controversial play in German translation in its first European performances, the original (in French and in English) having been banned in England. It's an outright attack on the hypocrisy of outward respectability covering over darker impulses, and it chimes with a climate of Viennese turn of the century Freudian analysis and exploration of repressed self-destructive impulses and bloodlust festering under a layer of surface respectability; an impulse that would soon be unleashed in the horrors of the Great War.

It was also a time when music was looking for a new expression or outlet for these new modernist views. Strauss retains the post-Wagnerian lush lyrical romanticism and exoticism that reflects the elegant surface of social respectability, but found an extraordinary new musical language to probe beneath the surface, a darker and more violent edge that lies within its unsettling dissonance, sudden shifts of tone and juddering declines and suspensions. As one of the most daring pieces of music written to that point, changing the face of music for a century, or at least pointing the way towards it, it's not only in Strauss's opera that Wilde's Salome is more frequently presented, but it's in it that it really lives.

A staging of the work then should also be radical and have the capacity to shock, or at least find a way that represents the spirit of the original. On the surface, Ivo van Hove's production isn't the most radical, but in the direction of the performers at least, he does find a way of getting to the heart of what remains compelling and shocking about the work. It need hardly be said that the central tension in the drama is between Salome and Jokanaan. How Herod, Herodias and Narraboth interact with Salome is very much contributory to the direction the work does in and its overall impact, but the focus here is very much on the pivotal confrontation between Salome's worldview and the one that Jokanaan both represents and decries.

Salome is the offspring of this corrupt society that hides its true face. In her generation's twisted view of the world, she wants to bend it to satisfy her own desires and at the same time turn her power towards exposing the true nature of this hypocritical society and completely destroy it. Speaking out against that hypocrisy and indulging those desires. This small incidental drama of a Biblical nature sets out to do achieve nothing less than complete annihilation. As Wilde prophetically recognises the fate that would befall him later, such actions and indulgence comes at a cost and ultimately prove to be self-destructive. Somehow Strauss's music carried the same seed of self-destruction in it, a darker abyss that Strauss would soon turn away from himself.

It's asking a lot of a young singer like Malin Byström, but under Ivo van Hove's direction she largely succeeds. There's a youthful innocence there at first, with a dark dirty desire from an abused corrupted childhood that is straining to get out. Jokanaan provides that foil to set herself against and test where the limits lie. She's not sure at first what she wants, but becomes dangerously capable of pushing taboo boundaries. Rejected by Evgeny Nikitin's solemn restrained Jokanaan, Byström handles Salome's transition over from pleading princess to violent murderous intent brilliantly, but it's also underscored well and delivered with jarring intensity from Daniele Gatti in the DNO orchestra pit. She's a dangerous spark waiting to ignite and Herod and her mother supply all the fuel she needs to set the world on fire.

The mechanics of the stage directions are mostly adhered to in Van Hove's production, but with a few varying points of emphasis. The moon gets larger, Narraboth kills himself in full public view looking down at the abyss, not away in some dark corner. Projections play a role, as they often do in the Belgian director's productions. They come into play mainly during the Dance of the Seven Veils, which is danced by Byström, but enhanced to show her dancing not for Herod but Jokanaan. The prophet's head is not delivered on a silver platter, but Jokanaan himself, covered head to foot in gore in a shallow basin that Salome wallows in. He's not entirely dead either, or perhaps moves only in Salome's head, crawling to an illicit and bloody union. If there's any contemporary commentary in Ivo van Hove's production it eludes me, but as an image of how Wilde and Strauss incautiously explored the direction society was going in, the DNO production is immensely powerful.

Links: DNO, Culturebox