Monday 24 February 2020

Salome - Opera Review

What: Salome
When: 22 - 27 February 2020
Where: Palais Theatre
Composed by: Richard Strauss
Libretto by: Oscar Wilde, translated by Hedwig Lachmann, and reduced by Richard Strauss
Conducted by: Richard Mills
Directed by: Cameron Menzies
Featuring: James Egglestone, Liane Keegan, Vida Mikneviciute, Dimity Shepherd, Ian Storey, and Daniel Sumegi
Choreography by: Elizabeth Hill-Cooper
Set by: Christina Smith
Costumes by: Anna Cordingly
Lighting by: Gavan Swift
Stage managed by: Whitney MacNamara
Vida Mikneviclute - photo by Craig Fuller
There are few operas which carry the infamy and outrage which litters the history of the story of Salome. It is also a rare beast in that is it only 90 minutes long. Most definitely an opera created before it's time, Strauss' Salome is being presented by Victorian Opera for 3 performances only at the Palais Theatre and closes on the 27th.

Strauss is a composer of the late Romantic era. For those of you who think that was so long ago think again. The Romantics were music makers from the mid 1800's to the early 1900's. In fact, you could argue we are still in the Romantic era because most of the famous film scores still use the principle of music as narrative.

When you go and see Salome you will instantly find your mind drawn to composers of the ilk of John Williams (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter etc). Thus, musically speaking, even the youngest of audiences will feel at home.

Assigning a librettist for this opera is tricky though. It is generally listed as Hedwig Lachmann but he only translated the play written by Oscar Wilde from the original French to German. In truth it is neither of these because by the time Strauss stripped it down by at least half, it resembles little but the barest outlines of Wilde's play.

I know this is hard for many people to understand, but a playwright uses language the same way a composer uses instruments. An analogy would be if I decided to use the music from Salome and remove all the repeats in the lietmotifs. (Strauss works groups of three throughout the score). On the other hand, this is very much how modern film works - in a show, don't tell and let the music do the heavy lifting kind of way.

Sadly, I think Menzies (director) didn't live up to his side of the bargain, but I will get onto that in a moment. Firstly I want to talk about the magnificent job done by Mills (conductor).

Salome is an opera with lush orchestration and one of the most exciting moments is to walk into the gorgeous theatre and see the orchestra swell beyond the pit walls and into the auditorium. Percussion and horns seep into the edges of the audience just as Jochanaan's blood seeps from his head at the end.

Orchestra Victoria do what they always do and under the sure and confident guidance of Mills the musical world of Salome embraces the audience and doesn't let go until after the final note. This opera has sometimes been called a tone poem and if you close your eyes during the show you will be swept into a world of beauty, despair and thrilling, edge of your seat horror.

In a European sense, the staging was also quite grandiose. Smith (set designer) has created an aged and ancient, run down theatre-like environment and this is complemented by Swift's lighting which streams through cracked windows and broken roofing. Cordingly (costumes) has also created a palette of old theatrical icons embodied by the cast who are characters of theatre long past.

It is all very impressive, but with regard to how any of this relates to the story of Salome, all I could do was spend a lot of the night silently asking "why?" Menzies does provide a very long winded explanation in the program but to be honest, I don't think his ambitions equal what has been produced and I saw nothing which made me feel the story was being brought '...forward to the ongoing themes moving into the 21st century. '

I could go into a full-on polemic about this dramatic interpretation but suffice to say it was lost on me and my plus one. Based on some veiled comments in other reviews, it was not very well recieved by others as well. I will say you can get a bit of a clue the show isn't working as a '...warning to the world...' when the audience are laughing. Herod (Storey) as the ghost of the Cowardly Lion from Wizard of Oz really is a step too far to take seriously although the analogy is obvious.

My great moment of disappointment was that the team had not found a way for the audience to see Jochanaan (Sumegi) in his dire imprisonment, although that may have to do with the dissonance between text and the stature of Sumegi. Regardless, it was impossible to feel a connection to someone singing off stage most of the time.

Menzies' stilted and disconnected blocking doesn't help either. I found myself wondering if he had set a rule for Sumegi and Mikneviciute (Salome) along the lines of "always stay as far away as you possibly can from each other whenever you are both on stage." Regardless, there was no tension between them and the whole scene was comedic (which is why the audience laughed).

My great moment of despair was the 'Dance of the Seven Veils'. Or should I say what dance? Hill-Cooper, choreographer, tried to be clever and make Salome's dance pathetic - a commentary on the idea that no matter how bad she was, Herod adored her so much he would think it was beautiful.

Perhaps Mikneviciute is not a dancer. Fair enough. But then don't dress her as a cabaret fan dancer. Also we needed to be let into Herod's fantasy through some sort of ghost dancer because otherwise his revelation of her true ugliness at the end becomes underwhelming. Especially with little text to support these big, complex moments.

I did enjoy the severed head. In a post True Blood era, I think the company could go even further though and have blood streaming down Salome's body!

Luckily, in opera, music is king, and just as wonderful as the orchestra is, so are the principal cast. The Palais is not the best venue for opera accoustically, and yet the key characters cut through with their powerful and dynamic vocals. Mikneviciute was wonderful and carried both the range and the dynamics through to the very last note. Storey was dominant as Herod and Sumegi managed to sound clear and present even though he was offstage.

In what is left of his script - and even in the structure of the story as a whole - Wilde's subversive and abrogating ideas and aesthetics about people still manage to come through in the opera Salome. He investigates the human insanity of worship and adoration. He links the worthy with the unworthy, leaving neither of them complimented.

How far does Jochanaan go in his worship of a god he can never see? To what levels of perfidy will Narraboth (Egglestone) descend for a woman he only sees ride by behind a veil? Are their any limits to what Herod will do for some attention from his daughter? What lengths will Salome go to in order to be desired by every man she comes into contact with? In a selfie-obsessed world, these questions are even more prominent today than they were a century ago!

3 Stars

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