Not for the fainthearted or the weak-kneed, Gale Edwards’s production of Salome brings about as much gothic horror and blood-stained psycho-sexual angst to the opera stage as it can handle: Richard Strauss’s menacingly dissonant score, all sinuous clarinets, unsettling key changes and flourishes of discordant brass (and including one aria to be performed avec severed head); a libretto full of ominous moons, ill portents and the hallucinations of the beating wings of death; and a visual sensibility that’s part Rocky Horror Show, part Eli Roth.
The curtain goes up on a scene of beauty and horror: the captain of the guard, Narraboth, serenades the teen princess Salome, against the insistent warnings of the Queen’s page and a score that modulates between lush romance and dread. A row of raw, stripped, strung-up carcasses form a backdrop, underneath which a banquet table is set, whose guests overlook the terrace-stage and the twisted lust-triangle that will play out across one evening with tragic results. Salome, played and sung with gusto by veteran soprano Cheryl Barker (doing her best pouty flouncing at 50 years of age), appears sparkle-horned and bedazzled, a lighter, brighter version of her monstrous Queen mother, whose gothic-camp get-up and caricatured gnashing of teeth is straight from a Tim Burton film. It’s lurid, it’s sexy, it’s deranged; it’s everything you don’t expect at the opera – and still shocking, 100-or-so years after its debut, at the birth of modern music.
Salome is all about sexual power: Herod wants it, Salome’s got it, and John the Baptist gets caught in the middle, with his head the prize that the princess claims from her step-father in return for dirty-dancing with him. The role of Salome is already a monster part, requiring both virtuoso agility and the power to face down an orchestra of symphonic proportions; but the centrepiece of this demanding role is the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, which calls for a soprano who also knows how to move, and convincingly. Barker and a series of burlesque and circus performers (Emma Goh and Caroline Kaspar) alternate between the seven ‘veils’ of the dance: a retro house-maid routine, a Marilyn tribute, a dominatrix pole dancer, a manic Mary Magdalene in a skimpy, sparkly two-piece…
Barker holds her own in a role that a less experienced singer might be defeated by – not least in the way she charts the downward spiral from precocious teen to delusional madwoman. Equally transfixing is perennial bad-boy John Wegner, playing against type in the role of the ill-fated prophet Jokanaan (aka John the Baptist), whose heldenbaritone is rich and expansive, and who has the kind of natural physical presence that sets a great performer apart from those who just sing.
The only blemishes on Edwards’s otherwise shlocktastic production – and unfortunately marring the opening scene – are a couple of garish, over-acted performances that one wouldn’t expect, of all places, under the helm of an experienced theatre director.