When Salome premiered in 1905, it made waves. At opera houses that didn’t ban it for its obscene depravity, shocked audiences poured in to see Richard Strauss’s take on the infamous biblical princess of Judea.
The opera’s text is a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play, where the story is swift and direct. Princess Salome grows obsessed with the prophet Jochanaan, who is imprisoned in the palace. Salome tells the prophet that he is beautiful and begs to kiss him, but Jochanaan refuses, saying she is damned for her sins. Salome grows enraged, and demands that her stepfather, King Herod, bring her the prophet’s severed head on a silver platter. He obliges.
Now more than a century old, Salome is still shocking. There’s something uniquely revolting about a woman singing a beautiful aria while holding a man’s matted, dripping, severed head. And that’s a sight we see in Atom Egoyan’s production of Salome for the Canadian Opera Company, currently onstage through Feb. 24, 2023. Nearly 30 years old, Egoyan’s production fuses live theatre with film – his signature medium – and leans hard into Salome’s inherent shock value.
Ahead of Salome performance, soprano Ambur Braid opens up on sex, scandal and power
Yet it’s soprano Ambur Braid who reveals just how disturbing Salome can be. Braid’s portrayal of the Judean princess is unnerving in its realism, devoid of any archetypes about royalty or bratty teenage girls. Right away, we’re dropped into Salome’s obsession with Jochanaan, and Braid carries us from curiosity to lust to sheer rage without a dramatic beat left empty. And she does it all with the voice – be it her round, glinting soprano or the near-feral utterings of Salome at her worst.
The result is a real light bulb moment with this opera. Braid’s Salome has the emotional intelligence of a child, no doubt the result of growing up a princess and having terrible parents, one of which regularly ogles and objectifies her. She’s used to getting what she wants – she grows suicidal when Jochanaan rebuffs her – and she’s resigned to the fact that, if she ever needs to, she can use her beauty and sexuality to seal the deal.
Egoyan uses the famous Dance of the Seven Veils – which he calls “the most famous striptease in history” – to tell us that Salome has a history with abuse. As opera’s sexiest music begins to play, the stage gives way to film projections on a fluttering screen. First we get flashback scenes – a charming backyard, a smiling young girl – and then we get a real dance, shown with a gorgeous bit of shadow-play by performers Clea Minaker and Faye Dupras. As the music reaches its tense peak, we’re left having seen a sad glimpse into all the times the Salome was reduced to a thing meant for men.
Egoyan’s Dance of the Seven Veils is a stunning moment of theatre. And its full meaning comes out because of the groundwork laid by Braid – the subtle and omnipresent sort of damage that she infuses into Salome. The character-building compounds and compounds, and by the time she was cradling a severed head as if it’s a newborn, her expression serene, I gave way to the full heebie-jeebies.
Musically, Salome is a triumph. The COC Orchestra surges and soars under music director Johannes Debus and, in the best way, one forgets they’re there – no easy task, given their size. Michael Kupfer-Radecky booms as Jochanaan, and leaves a hint of grit in the sound to bring the imprisoned prophet to life. Frédéric Antoun is a clarion Narraboth, his easy tenor leaning almost Helden-like in this role, and Carolyn Sproule sings a rich, desperate Page. There also needs to be a nod to the the Canadian-cast Five Jews – Owen McCausland, Michael Colvin, Jacques Arsenault, Adam Luther, and Giles Tomkins – who make earnest art out of Strauss’s brutally difficult music.
Michael Schade and Karita Mattila, arguably the big names in this show, are an excellent pair of terrible parents. As Herodias, star soprano Mattila lurches around the stage, doing her bare minimum to protect her daughter from her husband’s lecherous gaze. As King Herod, Schade is positively punchable.
But the show really is in the rare artistry of Braid, who says more with Salome than the men who wrote it. If you can spare 90 uninterrupted minutes this month, it’s an operatic moment not to miss.
The COC’s production of Salome runs at the Four Seasons Centre on February 9, 11, 17, 19, and 24.