Distant view – Salome 2

Last night to see Salome again.  My friend and former student, Db, was going company rush and invited me along at short notice.  We sat in the front row of the circle.

That’s a bit far away for my taste.

At that distance, it is more apparent why Cheryl Barker is not someone who you would first choose to sing Salome.  That’s certainly not because of any shortcomings as an actor, but rather the type of voice which she has.  It cannot always cut through the orchestra, and she is obliged to sing at the top of her volume range nearly all the time. This reduces the tonal variety she can offer.  Her performance is still a tour de force, especially in the final scene, but I wasn’t so swayed by it a second time.

From the circle, Jokanaan-in-the-cistern all the more obviously came from the big loud speaker hanging from the roof of the theatre rather than the hole beneath the stage.  Couldn’t Opera Australia tried harder with this?  It made the action (where everyone onstage peered at the drain-cover which was the lid of the cistern and a mysterious light streamed through the grill) ridiculously.  I don’t know how Strauss did it in the original production, but it can’t have been with a loudspeaker.

Speaking of grills, there was a terrible smell in the theatre, something like burning hair, from about 75 to 90 minutes in. It never entirely dissipated.  I wondered if they were doing St Lawrence rather John the Baptist.

I preferred the orchestral sound when I was in restricted view, probably because I was opposite and therefore had a direct line of sight to and hence sound from the brass – albeit that this meant it was a bit out of proportion.

On a second viewing, the shock value of the production was diminished.

One detail I previously missed was a buttock-baring butcher who carved meat off the carcasses at the back of the stage, and then appeared to remove Narraboth’s corpse after he had killed himself.  I suppose this is meant to make the point that the court was a slaughterhouse and that the dangling animal carcasses stand for the people killed at Herod’s command – presumably included amongst those whom he was quick to forbid  be brought back to life when told that the mysterious Jesus fellow was bringing the dead back to life by the shores of Gallilee.

A musical detail I picked up this time is that, when Salome sings at the end of biting Jokanaan’s lips, there is a musical reminiscence of the sly little theme from when Herod sang about eating food after Salome had bitten it.  She certainly was a quick study!

This time Jokanaan’s head did make a bit of a thud on stage, but it was a more well-cushioned one than my memories of an officious security guard cracking the head of a non-paying taxi passenger against a brick wall, or indeed the odd knock I’ve taken myself.  Maybe it was all that curly hair that made all the difference.

Which brings me to one aspect of this production which I find trendily tiresome.  It comes from Gale Edwards’ program notes, which I have only read second-hand, and is the argument that Herod is a pedophile.  Though not, apparently, a very ardent or at least potent one, as the program notes also apparently suggest that he wants Salome to dance so he can get it up.

What is the point of this?

Herod is bad enough already.  Lusting after his stepdaugher is just one sign of this, though presumably he could have ravished any sixteen year old he chose if she (or he) were not also his queen’s offspring. The whole court is rotten. (All Herod says when he slips on what he very quickly identifies on a moonlit terrace as blood is that that is an ill omen.) Jokanaan isn’t exactly sympathetic, though if Herod is to be a pedophile then so must Jokanaan be in this version insofar as he is depicted in this production as struggling to resist Salome as a temptation of the flesh.

Does Salome need to be turned into a child abuse victim?  I suppose an opera director can tell any story she chooses, but this seems to go right against the grain of either the quasi-historical story, the subsequent myth or the opera.  Yes, she is young.  That is why she is in a position to ask, as she tastes John’s blood on his lips, whether this bitter taste is the taste of love.  Even then, one might well ask: bitter for whom?  Arguable bitterer for John than for her.

I suppose if I understood better or even at all the point of the original opera I might be able to appreciate Edwards’ approach as some kind of critique of that.  At this stage, it just seems like a kind of mawkish modishness thrown in to spice up quite unnecessarily what is already a quite lurid enough mix of sin, sex, religion and death.

Maybe I’ll be able to make more sense of it all this Friday.

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