In A.S. Byatt's sprawling novelised essay on fin de siècle arts and culture, The Children's Book, a young anarchist suggests that Oscar Wilde's Salomé, on which Richard Strauss's opera is based, with its wide-eyed combination of sentimentality and sensuality, might actually be a bit of a kitsch-fest. Oh no, the anarchist's serious mentor quickly assures him, it is actually Modern Art, the height of avant garde freedom.
Princess Salomé, daughter of Herodias and step-daughter of King Herod, wanders the palace, seeking everywhere, like the mad, drunk moon above, for a lover. She is – apparently – coming of age, and – apparently – thinks a lot about sex and desire. One night she finds herself near the dungeons – or cistern – where Jochanaan, the prophet-preacher, is being held. She is instantly possessed by a desire to kiss his lips. When he repulses her salacious advances, she instead seduces her step-father with the dance of the seven veils, and demands from him the head of the preacher.
In the early 1900s, Salomé could perhaps have passed both as cutting-edge modernism and garish vulgarity. Now, however, Salomé is no longer modern. It is not cutting-edge or formally exciting. What endures is the kitsch. So, if we are going to do Salomé – and opera houses seemingly can't resist, with no fewer than twelve new productions by major companies around the world in the last year alone – we might as well celebrate the kitsch.
And there are few Australian directors who can bring kitsch to life as miraculously as Gale Edwards. The curtain swoops up briskly to reveal a deep red cave, designed with Brian Thomson, recalling equally a bloody chamber or an underground cabaret. Several racks of stripped and broken animal carcasses hang at the back of the stage, immediately behind a long banquet table which overlooks a sort of stepped arena lit in washes of red, pink, purple and more red (John Rayment). The costumes, by Julie Lynch, are mostly parodic, the palace guards in a mishmash of military styles, King Herod looking like a gaudy fight-night MC, Herodias with some kind of outré headdress, like a golden turd between two burned-out Christmas trees, and various slaves in butcher's gear. It's an arrangement that pushes the themes of sex and violence toward a smiling abyss of absurdity, but which also seems an appropriate contemporary register in which to consider the Strauss/Wilde vision of femininity.
Cheryl Barker's Salomé doesn't sound at all "coming-of-age", but her full, confident soprano, with a certain steeliness in the high notes – eschewing anything overtly neurotic – does give this production some gravity, something substantial around which the more outrageous design elements can orbit. Thomas Hall as Jokanaan is similarly a strong presence and ably suggests the preacher's magnetic fervour. The camp antics of Jacqueline Dark and John Pickering as the monstrous parents are enjoyable, Pickering in particular adding plenty of vocal colour.
Salomé is not scandalous or shocking, not any more. It is fun and bit gross. In Edwards' hands it is very fun and very gross. The opera's two dramatic highpoints, for example, the dance of the seven veils and Salome's promiscuous osculation with a severed head, are here amplified into the realms of burlesque and schlock horror. The dance is performed in turns by Emma Goh, Shannon O'Shea and Sarah Seville, and spans aerial gymnastics, Monroe-pouting, pole dancing and something vaguely Lolita themed. There is a serious edge to it – sex and power and the fantasy-veils that men invent for women – but not too serious.
Gale Edwards on Salomé