Opera is a form of slow-motion storytelling, with larger than life characters and their huge voices and big gestures injected into an over-the-top plot that inhabits an enormous stage.
Richard Strauss’ Salome – based on Oscar Wilde’s play – adds horror into the mix, re-working and twisting the original twelve verse Bible story of the death of John the Baptist into something much more gruesome and depraved. The character of John – Jokanaan in the opera – is probably the most unchanged and authentic.
NI Opera’s staging of Salome moves the setting from a palace in Galilee to what looks like a drug baron’s ranch in the America deep south. In the front yard, two guerrillas wearing combats and carrying rifles guard an oil tank in which Jokanaan (Robert Hayward) is incarcerated. Herod (Michael Colvin) is dressed like a golfer; his wife Herodias (Heather Shipp) looks like an escaped Charlie’s Angel attired in an asymmetric one-shouldered cerise jumpsuit. Add to this five Jews arguing with Herod over dinner and wearing Bermuda shorts and shell suits. It’s a cacophony of fashion.
Your eyes never leave her. You should not stare at her so!
The opera differs from the original by shifting the main villain from Herodias to Herod. He is the civic leader who killed his brother, married his sister-in-law and now leers at his step daughter Salome. Jokanaan was locked up for condemning the marriage as incestuous, but the troubled Herod fears the “holy man” and won’t hand him over to the Jews. Disturbed by visions, Herod ignores the ample warnings to change his ways.
Soprano Giselle Allen owns the Grand Opera House stage. Her powerful voice and varied expression conveys the complicated character of Salome, a princess approaching adulthood with a bunch of boundary issues. She rejects the advances of the captain of the guard Narraboth (Adrian Dwyer) but still persuades him to allow the grotesque and slimy Jokanaan to emerge from his dungeon.
There are lighter moments throughout the performance. The princess sits down against the fence for a smoke while the rest figure out what to do with Narraboth’s body. Two Nazarene’s unexpectedly break in through the compound wearing “Vote Jesus” and “You are headed for Hell” t-shirts that make their allegiance obvious.
There’s a lot of affection and attention rejected. Salome rebuffs Narraboth. John spurns Salome. While Salome does accede to her step father’s prurient request for a dance, she’s building him up for a fall.
NI Opera’s interpretation of Salome’s dance of the seven veils was the subject of much speculation in the run up to the performance. Dancer Hayley Chilvers ingeniously takes over from the soprano to complete the transformation from a princess to the monster that her parents have created.
There are no veils. Instead of a salacious strip tease, at first Herod gets a little of the cabaret he craves, before a frenzied Salome distances herself from the men gathered around to watch, sets down her teddy bear, and strips away their hold over her. While standing still, naked, it’s not about her loss of clothes or dignity; it’s a symbol of her vulnerability being unknowingly transferred to Herod as she bids to take over the power, gains independence and perhaps attempts to recover her dignity. (Or alternatively, it’s a vision of how a vile and filthy Herod wants to see his step-daughter.)
Despite the offer of jewels and wealth Salome sticks to her request for the head of the prisoner. “You are inspired my dear daughter” sings Herodias, who had counselled Salome not to dance and in the opera version wasn’t consulted about the prize.
Earlier Herodias disappeared behind the
bike shed oil tank with a guard when her husband is distracted. Herod strikes his wife later for screeching in sympathy with Salome. Suicide, alcohol, visions, preaching about the need for salvation and a beheading. The 24 hour dry cleaning bill for the show’s costumes will be enormous. But this is no soap opera.
Salome premiered in 1905 but manages to speak into 2015. The manner of Jokanaan’s detention conjures up parallels with Guantanamo Bay and black sites holding “war on terror” detainees. His beheading echoes many of the stories dominating our daily news from the Middle East. And Herod’s sleaziness and abuse sadly has modern equivalency too.
A latex replica head of Jokanaan emerges from the tank dripping with blood and Salome dances with it, sings to it, and clutches it to her body before eventually kissing the object of her attraction. That’s the moment of greatest depravity, and clearly shocked some members of the audience, never mind Herod who orders her death.
Strauss’ score is atmospheric and discordant, but melody wise it is not hummable and a credit to the singers that they can hold its tune.
Underneath the on-stage action, the Ulster Orchestra are hidden in the pit. Unfortunately they aren’t in the oil tank so while not playing at full volume, the music still tends to drown out the singing for the audience in the stalls.
The full libretto (words) is printed in the programme, but with the house lights off it’s next to impossible to follow them during the performance. It is testament to the cast’s acting and Oliver Mears’ direction that most of the story is still conveyed to the audience who applauded for over two minutes as the performance ended and the cast and creative team came on stage to take a bow.
In his review, the (London) Telegraph’s opera critic Rupert Christiansen describes NI Opera’s “considerable reputation in recent years for sparky, edgy work that engages with native musicians and creates a bit of a splash”. Quite a number in the audience had travelled from afar over to Belfast specifically to see Salome. There were more younger faces in audience that I’d expected for a night at the opera. And there were no protesters outside – they must all have got tickets to check it out for themselves!
Director Oliver Mears’ elevator pitch from our interview last week proved accurate:
It’s fantastic music performed by outstanding soloists, with the Ulster Orchestra, and a story that will knock you for six.
Salome will be performed again on Sunday afternoon in the Grand Opera House at 3pm. Some tickets are still available. It’s a big piece of musical theatre, with strong performances and an intense and macabre plot. You’ll not see the like of it in Belfast for quite some time.
And if you tune into Sunday Sequence tomorrow morning you may hear Father Eugene O’Hagan back on air to give his reaction now that he’s seen the opera.