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REVIEW: Salome | Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney

Gale Edwards breathes new life into a classic biblical tale for Opera Australia. It’s confronting theatre rich with context, wit and gaudy panache.

No wonder it’s called salami. So much meat. OK. Bad joke. But Gale Edwards’ uncompromising new production of Salome for Opera Australia really should be given a wide berth if you’re squeamish, or vegetarian, let alone both.

At the back of the stage, nine huge carcasses adorn a wall. Whether real or not, they look for all the world as if they are. In the foreground, the set has apparently been not merely bathed, but drenched in blood, which has dried into a congealed, impasto scarlet. Herod and his merry pan-religious court sit, gorging themselves on the fruits of the kill, which looks more like a cull. This is a scene that transcends its biblical origins, of course. It’s a massive metaphor for the conspicuous consumption that, unchecked, won’t only result in our demise. We’ll probably take every living thing down with us.

Strauss had a very different take on Salome than the biblical equivalent. The “real” Salome (Schlomit, in Hebrew, which is just a bit too close to Kermit, if you’re trying to write an opera, I s’pose), daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod, was born when Jesus was a teenager and died quite some time after he met his untimely and horrible death. (This assumes a lot, of course, including that such a person actually lived.) As such, there is an inherent nonsense in the opera: John The Baptist (otherwise known as Jokanaan, or Jochanaan) is busy proclaiming the coming of the messiah, but he’s already well-and-truly arrived. Mad as a hatter, that “holy” man. Herod had nothing to fear. There is a discrepancy, too, in the character of Salome. The historical Salome wasn’t the pariah Christianity turned her into. Far from being a calculating seductress, she married twice and had a number of kids. Worst case scenario, she was probably a yummy mummy; to use the polite version of the term. Her name means peace, even if it’s come to mean something like porn.

So, we have to suspend disbelief, big time, to embrace the literary Salome. She serves a purpose, however; one which Edwards has exploited to the nth. Salome, in Strauss’ opera, is the product of a poisonous partnership: the power-mad king and his loose bride. It should come as no surprise Salome turned out as she did; as Edwards’ describes her, a spoilt brat. After all, she was an abused child; even as a nubile young woman, she’s still subject to the inappropriate attentions of her lascivious stepfather.

Strauss’ key motivation (one he happily owned up to) in writing the opera was success. He’d noted how wildly popular (no pun intended) the play had proved. Edwards has other things on her mind. When Salome performs her infamous dance of the seven veils, Edwards is anxious to show and tell all the ways in which men objectify women to suit their whims and fantasies. For male viewers with a conscience (which narrows the field, right?), it can be a particularly fraught experience: while the animal finds undeniable attraction in a provocatively attired burlesque performer, pole dancer, or Marilyn lookalike with dress billowed iconically by the heat rising from The Baptist’s underground prison, the thinker is acutely aware of the violence done to women by such sexualised stereotypes. Mind you, it’s not as simple as all that, as Edwards points out. To paraphrase: who has the power in that image? The men standing around ogling the exploited female victim, or Marilyn, throwing back her head and laughing? The point is well-made and artfully exemplified.

So, theatrically, Edwards’ Salome is a distasteful indulgence (if I can put it that way), through-and-through. In a good way. She and her creative collaborators (in choreographer Kelley Abbey, set designer Brain Thomson, costume designer Julie Lynch and lighting designer John Rayment) have each played their part in a wicked evocation of the lurid, lotus-eating lifestyles of the rich and infamous.

“Edwards’ Salome takes the kind of leap of faith John The Baptist did in proclaiming the messiah. A leap, in my book, comparable to Wilde’s lyrical text …”

Mind you, even this would be as nothing without the anxious score by Strauss, which surely must’ve been something of an inspirational template for Hollywood ever since. It’s fitting Edwards and co have taken such a cinematic approach, visually, since it’s certainly present aurally. Whether the then new medium had an impact on the composer one can only but speculate upon. Perhaps by dint of Teutonic origins, Strauss conceived a complex matrix of leitmotifs, each signifying a character, or abstract theme. What sounds commonplace now was radical in Dresden, in late 1905.

One hopes Strauss’ modernism and penchant for dissonance isn’t asking too much of a modern audience. Regardless, it would be difficult to deny him his due insofar as his capacity to develop character musically. Even without any depiction by the prodigious creatives on and off stage, Strauss’ score goes a long way towards sketching Salome, Herod, Herodias, Jokanaan, Narraboth, and others. And for all its famed “nervousness”, Strauss’ music is, at the same time, opulent and, somehow, even romantic. More to the point, Johannes Fritzsch rendition, with the Australian Opera amd Ballet orchestra under his baton, is abundantly successful in bringing all of this to the fore.

Narraboth, the young, Syrian captain of the guard, may not be the biggest role in this opera, but David Corcoran’s vocal performance, resplendent in tone and colour was, perhaps, the one I was most smitten with, but, tragically, since Narraboth is smitten with Salome, but she with The Baptist, he sees fit to smite himself. I yi yi! Another spinto tenor bites the dust. Sian Pendry, as the page who loves him, sounded sweet, in every sense.

Cheryl Barker has a pedigree with Strauss’ heroines, not least Salome, having played that role for the English National Opera. Not only does she sustain an exceptionally demanding vocal role beautifully, but her voice sound as liberated as I can remember hearing it, reaching the ear with a purity and clarity that one could only but marvel at. Not only that, her ramped-up theatricality in the final scene, in which she cavorts with the head of Jokanaan, is almost terrifying.

Likewise, plumped-up by a ridiculous costume which would do a Disney witch proud, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark veritably exploded, in monstrous fashion, her physical and vocal presence enormous; you might say, a tour de force.

John Pickering is suitably unattractive as the weak-willed Herod; a populist pollie if ever there was one. Pickering’s commanding tenor was judiciously tempered, I imagine, to reflect his character’s lack of decisiveness and strength. Nonetheless, it still prevailed as a powerful and kingly instrument.

John Wegner’s flipped-lid soothsayer Jokanaan also sounded fittingly robust: his booming baritone sounding for all the world as if God was speaking through him. Theatrically, he seemed utterly possessed; consumed by faith; racked by grandiose delusions. Edwards has directed him with finesse: there is the hesitation of lust as he summons his resolve to reject Salome.

There were strong performances from the God squad (the superstitiously assembled, protective circle of clergy surrounding Herod): Kanen Breen, Graeme Macfarlane, Benjamin Rasheed, Brad Cooper, Gennadi Dubinsky, Shane Lowrencev and Sitiveni Talei all had plenty in reserve. So, too, military men Adrian Tamburini, Tom Hamilton and Andrew Moran.

Edwards’ Salome takes the kind of leap of faith John The Baptist did in proclaiming the messiah. A leap, in my book, comparable to Wilde’s lyrical text, rendered in French, or Strauss’ provocative libretto and, more particularly, score. With her cohorts and an ensemble of outstanding performers, she has breathed new life into an already vivid literary figure and, in so doing, makes some new observations, with wit and gaudy panache.

The details: Salome plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 3. A Melbourne season at the State Theatre, Arts Centre opens on December 1. Tickets on the company website.

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