Left – Cheryl Barker
"She should have died of shame". So thunders the misogynist mad monk.
No, we are not in Canberra on Tuesday, but in the Opera House on Friday, the opening night of Salome, and the mad monk in question is John the Baptist, called Jokanaan in Strauss' opera. This opera, whose libretto is taken word for word from Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, is usually produced with an emphasis on Salome's moral degeneracy contrasting with Jokanaan's purity of heart, a contrast underlined by the constant references to Wagner's Parsifal throughout the score (interesting chromatic music for the amoral, less interesting diatonic music for the moral). Gale Edwards' riveting production called attention to the possibility that John the Baptist's constant denigration of Salome's mother Herodias is more than a little sexist, and that Salome's reaction, that she will not be lectured on women by that man and wants his head, is the product of the way women were constructed around her ("Through women evil came into the world" Jokanaan shrieks) as well as of the completely casual attitude to killing bodied forth in Herod's court throughout the opera. This production, supported by a very strong cast, is really thought-provoking, and a must for lovers of Strauss.
The central scene is the famous dance of the seven veils. It is basically a strip-tease, and so Edwards transports us to Kings Cross, where two brilliant dancers (not named in the programme) dance out male sexual fantasies about women – pole dancers, French maids, scantily clad nuns, etc. This somewhat postmodern stepping out of the narrative works very well, supported by Strauss' surprisingly un-dance-like music, and make it clear that the dance is not just for Herod, but for all the men, misogynist or otherwise, in the audience.
Cheryl Barker seemed completely comfortable with this slant in her portrayal of the title role, combining an enormous range of vocal expression, moving effortlessly from the mock-innocent to the vituperative, with a deepened characterisation that gave great plausibility to the mix of capriciousness and wilfulness of the role. She is very far from being an ignorant botch.
Disconnection between the characters is made clear from the start, all of them talking about the moon and seeing something completely different in it. And when Narraboth (beautifully sung by David Corcoran) kills himself, no-one on stage even notices. Salome's enraged reaction to Jokanaan's refusal to be seduced by her is the only action that results directly from something someone else says or does in the whole opera.
The role of Herod was sung with complete conviction by the tenor John Pickering. In a play steeped in decadence he showed how power corrupts not only moral principles, which are virtually absent in the opera, but also personal strength and direction. Herod is at the mercy of superstition, and although he would like the ranting Jokanaan out of the way, he is deeply afraid of the consequences of killing someone who is perhaps a "holy" man. When Herod is frantically ("you see, I am calm...") trying to persuade Salome to accept something other than the head of Jokanaan, Pickering's portrayal was a masterly display of despotic irresoluteness.
John Wegner as Jokanaan sang with great strength, and could always be heard over Strauss' immense score, though the role seemed just a fraction too high for him. In the scene where Salome tries to seduce him, Edwards produced a stage quotation from Parsifal; she had Jokanaan lie with his head on Salome's lap, as Parsifal does with Kundry in her attempted seduction. (It is interesting that when Strauss heard Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, he said "but it's just Parsifal!)
Johannes Fritsch conducted the vast score, thinned down in I think Stuart Challender's arrangement to fit into the Opera House pit, with meticulous attention to detail. This was particularly clear in the wind trills, those obsessive sonorities which so much contribute to the score's nervous quality observed by Strauss' father. But it is really impossible to expect half the number of strings that belong to a Strauss orchestra to convey the texture that he had in mind. Can Sydney have an opera house in which it is possible to do justice to Strauss and Wagner?
The strangest moment in Strauss' strange and exotic score is the bleating of two double basses on a ridiculously high note during the scene in which Salome peers down into the cistern to see why Jokanaan (disappointingly) isn't screaming before he is murdered. We shall not add to the already large repertoire of double bass jokes by asking why Strauss thought two instruments would be better than one, but observe that the accompanying instruction in the score reads that this very unusual sound should represent "the sobs and groans of an oppressed (unterdrückt, that is, pressed down) woman".
At the end of this production Salome is killed, not by being pressed down by the shields of Herod's soldiers as Wilde asks, but by having her throat slit by the huge executioner from Turandot, shell-less muscles all too exposed. Are all Oriental executioners enormous and naked? I am still waiting for an operatic executioner who is dressed in a well-fitting Armani suit, ready to address Parliament.
Opera Australia presents
by Richard Strauss
Director Gale Edwards
Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: Oct 12, 16, 19, 23, 26, 29, 31, 2012
Tickets: from $105
Bookings: (02) 9318 8200 | www.opera-australia.org.au