DVD Review: Salome, David McVicar, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Salome, in the latest production by David McVicar for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, gives us a powerful, at times disturbing interpretation of Richard Strauss’ early masterpiece.

Updated to late thirties Germany, in the year or so before World War II, gone are the Orientalist trappings of traditional productions.  The curtain opens on a split stage dominated by a starkly lit spiral staircase, representative of the moon, with Herod’s birthday celebrations taking place upstairs.  The bulk of the action takes place in a sordid downstairs setting of bathrooms replete with drunken whores, servants and guests.  It’s a seedy world beautifully designed by Es Devlin, like Pasolini’s Salo meets Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. 

Nadja Michael, is visually the Salome of one’s dreams, but unfortunately delivers an uneven vocal performance dominated by a forced, pinched tone, with a rather wide vibrato verging on a wobble.  She is also troubled by intonation problems and is seriously flat in a lot of what she sings above the stave, notably in the final scene.  While being a convincing actress who delivered a riveting performance, I cannot recommend her vocal performance in this production.  

Michaela Schuster however, is a very able Herodias, nicely sung and acted, resplendent in her blue/green evening gown.  She makes a perfect companion to Thomas Moser’s Herod, the lines of sexuality and relationship boundaries being exceptionally blurred in this production, giving more credence to the air of debauchery which pervades the court of Herod.  It was also refreshing to see in this production that they weren't simply a bickering couple, their relationship was one of mutual understanding and satisfaction.  

Thomas Moser delivered as nicely sung a Herod as one is to ever hear.  He avoided the sprechgesang deliveries so popular with exponents of this role.  Dramatically it was a suave and subtle characterisation which made Herod rather complex and disturbing.  In fact, what was alluded to was more frightening with its undertones.

The standout performance of the evening was the Jockanaan of Michael Volle.  Dressed as a filthy vagrant, all mired in dirt and sweat, his portayal of the prophet was convincing in its depiction of a mind spent too long in solitude, to the point of dementia.   Singing with much power and eloquence, Volle delivered an interpretation to be remembered.  His interaction with Salome was interesting in the sense that even this holy man of God is almost tempted by Salome's charms.  Almost.  His curse was  devastatingly powerful.

Joseph Kaiser was a convincing Narraboth, singing with impassioned tone that aptly portrayed his anguish at Salome’s fickleness.  His death avoided histrionics and Herod’s reaction to discovering his corpse was a nice touch.

The Dance of the Seven Veils was spectacular.  A psychological journey in Salome’s mind, dancing through seven rooms in various stages of dress, all the time accompanied by Herod, it was a marvellous and disturbing view into the deranged heroine's mind.  The culmination of the dance was the insinuation that Salome had performed certain 'acts' for her step father and the tension was almost sickening.  It is so hard to make this part of the opera convincing in a lot of ways, trust me I have seen some shockers, and to my mind it really worked here.

And now we get to the notorious nudity!  It was a nice conceipt to have Naaman, the Executioner on stage throught the entire opera.  At times I found him intriusive, especially during the early scenes, but when he came into his own, Duncan Meadows showed us that there is more to this man than just the deed itself (so to speak!).  It was fascinating to see that once he emerged naked and covered with the prophet's blood and holding his head, his persona changes, turning in on itself as he witnesses the horror of Salome's lust.  Her death was superbly handled, no soldiers, no spears, but compelling and personal.

The final scene was aptly bloody, and it was here that Michael came into her own.  Aside from the fact that her voice is not ideal for Salome by any means, she captured the full consequence of her actions with chilling conviction.  The way she casually held the head by the hair and dragged it along was the stuff of horror movies, the amount of blood was reminiscent of the movie 'Carrie'.

I must say that I was extremely impressed by the conducting of Philippe Jordan.  He brought out many nuances that are often crushed under the weight of the incredibly large Straussian orchestra and his pacing was superb.  His sense of forward motion was compelling, all the while allowing his soloists space to breathe.  The orchestra was in top form.

As good as this production is, the setting doesn’t really reflect the heady, over-ripe exoticism of the score and seems to leave the audience asking more questions, especially about the five Jews being such dominant party guests, which seems rather inconsistent with the concept.  This and other small quibbles aside, the action works rather well, and one leaves feeling exactly like one should after seeing Salome, uncomfortable in the very least. 

All in all this is a production that deserves repeated viewing.  For an updated staging it will be hard to beat this one and it would be interesting to compare Nadja Michael’s performance here to the one from La Scala that is also available on DVD.  If you prefer the heady exoticism of a traditional staging, however, then the Gotz Friedrich movie from 1974 starring Teresa Stratas will be the one for you.  You can purchase them all through Amazon.