Malin Bystrom as Salome, 2018 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda

Looking at Salome through a post-Weinstein veil

Ten years ago I saw David McVicar’s production of Salome. Back then it was brand new not only to the Royal Opera House and also to me. I was 23 years old, developing my knowledge of opera productions in London and working my way through a checklist of operas I wanted to see. Between now and then, I’ve seen Salome performed by Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in a semi-stage production at the BBC Proms and another performance by British soprano Allison Oakes at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I remember the production well for its strange stage design — a green, modern day tie store. (I didn’t buy it.) I also recall a small yet exceptional physical theatre production by Théâtre Libre at the Space Arts Centre. From these productions alone, I learnt that the character of Salome — based on the biblical text — most certainly symbolises seduction, power and lust.

Given Oscar Wilde‘s emotionally charged portrayal of Salome, his French play became a success de scandal in 1891. This was similarly the case for Richard Strauss‘s opera in 1905 in Dresden. The Lord Chamberlain banned the play and opera in London until 1907, while the Vienna State Opera was far more ruthless and didn’t perform the opera until 1918. In 1903, Strauss composed his novel, groundbreaking opera accommodating a 100-piece orchestra in Berlin, and in the space of two years it was successfully performed over 50 times after its premiere in 1905.

Michael Volle as Jochanaan and Malin Bystrom as Salome in ROH, 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

Michael Volle as Jochanaan and Malin Bystrom as Salome in ROH, 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

Moving forward to 2018, during the week in which social media exploded with real-time images of female and male actors at the Golden Globe Awards making a stand against sexual harassment and violence, I witnessed McVicar’s third revival of Salome through filtered glasses. This global protest (#TimesUp) is the result of Hollywood stars coming out with sexual assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. With these shocking reports and ideas of female suppression bubbling in my mind, it was hard to watch Salome without thinking of these recent events.

During the 19th century, audiences found Salome — a gory and morally corrupt narrative — too much for them to see on stage. The erotic dance, otherwise known as the Dance of the Seven Veils, between the young princess and her lascivious stepfather was a shock for them, not forgetting the dreaded kiss with the severed head of the prophet Jokanaan. But Salome is more than that. I realised this while my eyes were staring at the stage and my mind was filled with claims against Harvey Weinstein, and female injustice as a whole. The opera is about control and who has the most power. Salome has one target in her mind and that’s the head of Jokanaan, and even the most precious gems and jewels cannot tempt her. Her sacrifice is a sensual dance for her perverted stepfather. Likewise, Herod seemingly appears the highest authority on stage as the Tetrarch of Judea, yet he is the weakest when faced with the prophet. He seeks comfort from his God like a frightened child. Go as far as Jokanaan and you’ll see a vulnerable man chained by his beliefs in a cell. Salome, a devious girl, throws herself at him attempting to seduce him, but he pushes back. From start to finish, Jokanaan has the least power. Thinking outside of the opera for a moment and returning to present events, I was reminded that sexual harassment could happen to anyone, not just women.

Michael Volle as Jocanaan at the Royal Opera House, 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

Michael Volle as Jocanaan at the Royal Opera House, 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

On Monday night at the Covent Garden, McVicar’s revived production transported us to a nameless time and place. Designer Es Devlin, now revived by designer Bárbara Lluch, presented a basement slaughterhouse with Herod’s guards tormenting naked women and their master’s prisoner Jokanaan. Upstairs, Herod is entertaining guests at a decadent dinner party. From the costume designs alone, I gather the setting to be somewhere between the 1920s and 1940s, but I paid greater attention to the music.

Strauss’s score is filled with leitmotifs and striking effects to accompany the climactic drama and the opera’s emotionally volatile characters. To me, Strauss’s score is so sublime that when I get the chance, I listen to recordings at a high volume. (See recording suggestions below.) It’s the mesmerising music and songs, including the Dance of the Seven Veils, which bewitches the listener with Strauss’s cleverly crafted exotic fantasy embellishments.

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási took to the podium with massive enthusiasm and drove out multiple pinnacle moments with a bang. A diligent and robust effort could be heard from the pit including the violinists, percussionists and double basses. In fact, everyone in the Royal Opera House’s Orchestra gave 200% and it was duly noted.

David Butt Philip as Narraboth and Malin Bystrom as Salome at the Royal Opera House, 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

David Butt Philip as Narraboth and Malin Bystrom as Salome at the Royal Opera House, 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

David Butt Philip opened the opera as Narraboth, the head guard besotted with Salome. His vocal quality cast sympathy for his character being at the whim of Salome’s commands, leading to the first omen and chain of fatal events to come. Michaela Schuster and Michael Volle are ahead of the game with their title roles as Herodias and Jokanaan. I saw them perform their roles in the original 2008 production with soprano Nadja Michael. Vocally Schuster continues to be a good match for Herodias. Her depiction of Herodias is comparable to a caricature —a drunk and vulgar queen uncertain of Herod’s predatory behaviour towards her daughter, yet she relishes in her daughter’s dark request for the murder of Jokanaan.

Volle shined with his rich voice which was both terrifying and mystical. Volle had the audiences’ undivided attention every time he sang. It’s the sign of a great artist. John Daszak‘s Herod was weedy and irritating, which Daszak could have deliberately decided to do with his performance. One could say he was almost unintimidating, that is until we reached the Dance of the Seven Veils which revealed snapshots of Salome as a young child slowly growing into a lady.

Malin Brystrom as Salome, John Daszak as Herod and Michaela Schuster as Herodias. ROH 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

Malin Brystrom as Salome, John Daszak as Herod and Michaela Schuster as Herodias. ROH 2018. Photo by Clive Barda.

Instead of setting Herod’s kingdom at a shiny golden palace, McVicar’s production offers the audience a psychological look into the deeper and repulsive nature of Herod lurking underneath. This is most prominent in the scene of the Dance of the Seven Veils. A succession of doors with visual projections, produced by theatre design company 59 Productions, shed light on an undercurrent of child abuse and molestation. I started to see all of this sexual violence as the music developed and as Daszak’s Herod got more intimate with Malin Byström‘s Salome.

Swedish soprano Malin Byström made the night her own. It was her first house performance as Salome and she gave an outstanding performance on the opening night. She thrilled the entire auditorium with her impressive German diction and her vocal ability to soar seamlessly across the amphitheatre. It was cause for a celebration. Her Salome was cunning, manipulative and calculated, fully aware of her stepfather’s seedy desire for her, and she showed no regrets for manipulating him to carry out her necrophilia.

Malin Bystrom as Salome and John Daszak as Herod in the Dance of the Seven Veils. Photo by Clive Barda. ROH, 2018.

Malin Bystrom as Salome and John Daszak as Herod in the Dance of the Seven Veils. Photo by Clive Barda. ROH, 2018.

So, what did I learn about this revival? McVicar’s production is the goriest I’ve seen so far. I hope that a new production tries to compete with his interpretation by presenting audiences with more fake blood to match this one’s (or possibly The Globe’s production of Titus and Andronicus). That said, despite the unappealing setting, I’d still make it my mission to get a ticket to see this 100-minute show once more.

Looking at today’s movement against sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, the film, theatre and opera industries are switched-on and should be making a considerable effort to ensure none of its artists and performers are mistreated and that support is easily accessible to them should they need it. I’m not the only one looking at the world through a different veil. The rest of the world is waiting to see some real change.

Salome is showing at the Royal Opera House until January 30th. Check out the website to purchase tickets now, alternatively wait for Friday Rush tickets released every Friday at 1pm. (Click here.) 

Recommended Recordings of Richard Strauss’s Salome:

  1. Live Recording of Frankfurt Radio Symphony with conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada (Pantatone Music: 2017) Click here for Amazon listing.
  2. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Herbert von Karajan (EMI Classics: 1999) Click here for the Amazon listing.