Tawdry, titillating and Teutonic, the Canadian Opera Company’s Salome is the sort of production that will thrill some viewers, amuse others, and enrage a few – and that’s pretty much as it should be. Richard Strauss intended the one-act opera as an opulent provocation, and over a century later, thanks in large part to Atom Egoyan’s visually adroit direction, it still manages to seem dirty, daring and slightly deranged.
Given what goes on in the pop world these days, that’s no small achievement.
It helps, of course, that the story’s a classic. According to the Bible, Salome was the stepdaughter of Herod, the king of Judea. Herod has imprisoned John the Baptist – Jochanaan in the German – but is afraid to execute him. Inflamed by lust, Herod begs Salome to dance for him; in exchange, she asks for the prophet’s head on a platter.
Strauss’ opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s re-telling of the tale, which presents the royal household as a swamp of thwarted desire. For Wilde, it was sufficiently salacious for Herod to lust after his stepdaughter’s body while her only desire was to kiss the cold, dead lips of the Baptist. Strauss added a layer of polytonal exoticism to that polymorphous perversity, and voilà – the shock of the new.
But because it’s not new any more, what’s needed is a different sort of shock, and to that extent Egoyan’s masterstroke lies in recognizing that the story is more disturbing if these characters aren’t simply debauched monsters, but real people. So he humanizes Salome, putting the characters in modern dress so we can recognize them as contemporary types.
His Herod isn’t a concupiscent despot but a nouveau riche lout, in thrall to his appetites but bored by his riches. Richard Margison, his corpulent physique draped in sweatpants, wife-beater and an oversized tangerine velour robe, was perfect in the role, so fidgety and furtive that you almost wouldn’t notice how effortlessly his authoritative tenor cut through the dense orchestration.
Salome, meanwhile, is painted as emotionally arrested, a child in a woman’s body. Erika Sunnegårdh walked a difficult line in the role, having to balance playfulness with petulance, but her lithe, slightly honeyed soprano was more than up to the challenge. It was easy to hear the hurt beneath the barbs when she alternately flirted and fought with Jochanaan.
Still, it was Martin Gantner as Jochanaan who dominated the performance. Prophets seldom seem like people in the Bible, but Ganter’s combination of alternately broken and defiant body language with the booming authority of his powerhouse baritone made him entirely convincing. Even when offstage, he was a commanding presence, thanks to video projection that rendered him as a huge, disembodied mouth intoning prophecies.
The COC last mounted Egoyan’s production of Salome in 2002, and while the stage design and costumes are as before, there have been additions and tweaks to some of the visual elements. In particular, the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils is more dreamlike than salacious, an effect that Johannes Debus’ conducting, which played down the campier orientalisms in order to emphasize the power of the melodic line, only enhanced.
If this Salome has a weakness, it’s that it gets off to such a visually dense start that the final moments, which reduce the visuals to a stark palette of blood red and dark shadow, may seem unbearably slow.
But be patient – the final twist is a shock even Strauss wouldn’t have imagined.
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