Thursday, 14 June 2012

Opera Review: 15 June

A production that proves there is still amazing shock and class to be found in one of opera’s most compelling stories…

Written by Tim Walker


Norma Desmond was a wily old bird. When the fading actress, immortalised in Billy Wilder's fi lm Sunset Boulevard, had to pick her comeback role – she preferred to call it her 'return' – she alighted on Salome. As she well knew, no character can chew up the scenery quite like King Herod's wife, who is a fabulous mixture of lust, depravity and sensitivity.

I wonder if the German soprano Angela Denoke is hammy enough to give the part all that it requires in the Royal Opera House's second revival of Richard Strauss's one-act work, but doubtless the part will help her get ahead.

This version of the great romance between good and evil, based on Oscar Wilde's take on the Biblical story, has seldom, if ever, pleased everyone. The director, David McVicar, with his designer, Es Devlin, stages his rendering on a stark set that eschews the period splendour of the Palace of King Herod. It is, I have to say, a remarkably ugly and even sinister Bauhaus interior with an Art Deco spiral staircase and costuming that mixes fascist Italy and Nazi Germany with a cinematographic twist of Pasolini.

Happily, however, the strength of the tale is too much even for McVicar's exhibitionism. Denoke first appears draped over the staircase banister rail in the dress of a 1930s debutante. She ventures downstairs, surrounded by waiters, into the bowels of the house, where the Baptist is imprisoned.

Denoke sounds a little reedy in the upper registers, and, as a consequence, suffers the torture of periodically being drowned out by the Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who still has a lot to learn about how to accompany, rather than to be the main attraction.

Herod, performed by the Danish tenor Stig Andersen, has about him too much of the air of a regional manager of a northern carpet company to be taken entirely seriously. The star of the production is, undoubtedly, Egils Silins as Jokanaan, the Baptist. There is a rich and stylish quality to the bass-baritone's voice, and his projection, at least, proves more than a match for the orchestra.

The story still undoubtedly has the power to shock. It was Salome's dance of the seven veils that got pre-Great War-era audiences hot under their starched collars, but it is Jokanaan's decapitation, the necrophiliac kiss from Salome and the – at best, ambivalent – portrayal of Jewish people that proves most disturbing to today's audiences. It is a flawed but profoundly atmospheric production that will, I fancy, live on in the deepest, darkest recesses of the minds of all who see it.

At the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2: 020-7304 4000,

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