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Losing heads in London

London Coliseum
09/28/2018 -  & October 3, 6, 12*, 18, 20, 23, 2018
Richard Strauss: Salome, Opus 54
Allison Cook (Salome), David Soar (Jokanaan), Michael Colvin (Herod), Susan Bickley( Herodias), Stuart Jackson (Narraboth), Clare Presland (Herodias’s Page), Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Jonathan Lemalu, Amar Muchhala (Jews), Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan (Nazarenes), Simon Shibambu, Ronald Nairne (Soldiers), Trevor Bowes (A Cappadocian), Ceferina Penny (Slave)
English National Opera Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (Conductor)
Adena Jacobs (Director), Marg Horwell (Designer), Lucy Carter (Lighting Designer), Melanie Lane (Choreographer)

A. Cook (© Catherine Ashmore)

Graciously housed for the past fifty years in the Coliseum Theater, just a short walk from London’s grand Royal Opera House, the innovative English National Opera (ENO) is something of a foil to that institution, playing a role similar to the one that the New York City Opera used to play to the more stolid Met. Its singers are younger, its repertoire more daring, its productions more avant-garde, its ticket prices lower, its audiences more casual, its policy on drinks and photography more permissive, its outreach more diverse, and its language for all performances English. In what might be a unique innovation in the world of opera, each production offers at least one performance accompanied by sign language, apparently to be inclusive of opera fans who are deaf. The ENO’s stalwart golden anniversary theme, celebrated in a gala concert on October 10, is the hopeful yet improbable declaration “Opera for All.” According to the ENO’s chief executive Steve Murphy, the company’s purpose in these relentlessly egalitarian times is “to make opera for everyone, not just the lucky few.” The ENO’s season-opening new production of Richard Strauss’s lusty Salome amply illustrates many of these characteristics, though, apart from the occasional London hipster, the audience was still visibly dominated by the lucky few.

Strauss’s opera closely adapted Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, which was written in 1891 but remained banned from the British stage on moral grounds for the next forty years. Its plot was inspired by lurid late Romantic amplifications of brief Biblical passages about a seductive Judean princess who demanded the head of John the Baptist (Jokanaan in the opera), who rejected her advances in righteous fury, in return for performing a lascivious dance for her stepfather Herod. Horrified by Salome’s bloodlust, which degenerates into a savage kissing of the severed head, Herod ends the drama by ordering her execution. In its alluring exploration of the femme fatale, the opera combines in just one act themes of obsession, perversion, incest, suicide, murder, and necrophilia, disturbingly splayed across a background of ardent spirituality which the atheist Strauss meant to lampoon.

Australian director Adena Jacobs, who is new to opera and whose previous work centered on feminist reinterpretations of classic theater, seemed determined to revisit Salome for the #MeToo era by telling the story from the title character’s perspective. It sounds like an audacious idea until one realizes that Salome already does this abundantly in both music and drama. Indeed, this was one the leading reasons why so many people objected to it, just as they objected to Wilde’s play and other creative works featuring violently sexualized women. Jacobs’s comments about the role of sexual power in self-actualization are dressed up in the contemporary jargon of feminist theory and identity politics but are otherwise indistinguishable from those dating from the opera’s premiere in 1905. More confusingly, Jacobs’s production is situated in a season that ENO artistic director Daniel Kramer has arranged around what he hopes will be thought-provoking explorations of masculinity, a topic for which Salome is not one of the repertoire’s most obvious works.

The creative tension of these competing visions seems to have cancelled them out. The performance unrolled more or less like any other performance of Salome, albeit with some unusual modernist embellishments. Herod’s palace looks like a modern club, with velvet ropes confining the opening scene’s spectators, who anticipate Salome’s arrival as a celebrity partygoer. Herod’s debaucheries take place in an illuminated back room, where they are helped by the wheezy tenor Michael Colvin’s uncanny resemblance to the late comedian George Carlin. His guests’ discussion of the nature of faith is illustrated by the carcass of a large decapitated horse, which is dragged on stage and periodically beaten by the characters.

It is unknown whether Jacobs intended to use the metaphor of beating a dead horse to illustrate the inconclusiveness of the opera’s religious and moral debates, but ironically it could just as well have applied to the deficiencies of her production concept. Jacobs’s Salome is no feminist heroine, but the same disturbed young woman every male director depicts, if only a bit more sexualized than usual in her masturbation to Jokanaan’s prophecy of Jesus and momentary baring of her breasts as she tries to seduce him. In an act of what could only be called objectification, her first scene is lustily filmed with a hand-held camera by the suicidally obsessive guard captain Narraboth, delivered with clarion intensity by the talented tenor Stuart Jackson. Her seductive Dance of the Seven Veils was a juvenile strip tease visually aided by a phallic baseball bat and accompanied in its more frenzied moments by Herod’s harem. Instead of perishing at Herod’s command, Salome is led into suicide by her mother Herodias, sung by the underpowered Susan Bickley, who stands behind her and guides her to point the barrel of an automatic pistol in her mouth. As the opera’s repetitious final strains boom out, we are left to wonder whether the inevitable bullet will kill both women. Reinterpreting Salome’s death as a maternally guided suicide rather than a step-paternally ordered execution, however, only further vitiated any claim the production has to endowing the opera’s title character with “agency.” The fatal finale is merely her own fulfillment of a male directive to extinguish her existence.

A more evocative “feminist” approach might have given Salome the cool demeanor and methodical sadism of a Claire Underwood rather than a return to the strikingly traditional femme fragile. Strauss famously wrote that he wanted Salome to be a teenage princess with the voice of an Isolde, but Allison Cook, a mezzo-soprano, lacked bloom in the part’s challenging high range. Jokanaan, admirably sung by the muscular bass David Soar, rolled around the stage in the expected loin cloth but seemed constrained by a mask contraption that allows a video camera to project a large image of his lips on a backdrop screen as he sang his role. It is anyone’s guess why it was there, but it was a noisome distraction.

The ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins led a well-paced performance. Tom Hammond’s English translation of the German libretto had poetic moments but made few concessions to the English text of Wilde’s play, which was itself translated from the original French in which Wilde wrote it.

Paul du Quenoy



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