Salome, Royal Opera House, London
Vienna Philharmonic/ Gergiev, Barbican Hall, London

McVicar invokes the final taboos, fascism and incest, to explain the deadly Salome

Can Salome still shock? As with Wilde's play, Strauss's opera was once an incendiary succès de scandale: banned in respectable houses and dubbed by a New York physician who attended an open rehearsal "one of the most horrible, disgusting, revolting and unmentionable exhibitions of degeneracy I have ever heard, read or imagined". At its performance in the stuffy city of Graz on 16 May 1906, Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Berg and the young Adolf Hitler gathered to hear it. At the Royal Opera House last week, we had Jeremy Paxman.

If the glittering, guttural, groin-centred opulence of the score still arrests, the drama has staled. Fuelled by lust, religion or politics, the grossest of violence can be found in any newspaper, any tome on 20th-century history. Lowbrow or highbrow, our culture is glutted with horror, from Hostel and Saw to Gary Indiana's Resentment and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

An imaginative director might have a little fun with our weary familiarity, for Salome's most delinquent characteristic is not immorality but amorality. Instead, David McVicar employs two of the last remaining taboos to explain the biblical siren's murderous carnality: incest and fascism.

Designed by Es Devlin, the sets reference Pasolini's Salò: a letterbox glimpse of an upstairs banqueting room with Aubrey Beardsley wallpaper, a tiled basement fitted with urinals, showers and meat-hooks. A slaughtered pig hangs in the background. Above it Jews in prayer-shawls clink glasses with fez-wearing sybarites in 1930s evening dress. Marcel-Waved beauties in girdles and stockings wait passively for the next inquisitive mouth or hand. Brown Shirt soldiers stagger in fear and lust. A shaven-headed executioner strokes the blade of a long sword, while skittish, sullen Salome (Nadja Michael), bored as any teenager at a dinner party, drifts down the spiral staircase to torment her captive audience, Jokanaan (Michael Volle).

As an analogue for Herod's court, the neurotic decadence of Salò works well enough. But what McVicar does with it is too vanilla to alarm anyone but the dimmest of Hoorays who frequent Boujis. His big idea for the "Dance of the Seven Veils" – a series of rooms that move across the stage with video projections of rag dolls and zippers, a wardrobe of white dresses, a wash basin – suggests that this is a ritual that Salome and her step-father have developed over many years, though McVicar stops short of showing us what happens in the seventh room. But for the lightest of petting and Michael's digital penetration of Volle's mouth, there is little sex. The nudity comes from the executioner (Duncan Meadows), who moves crab-like to protect his modesty when he exchanges his greatcoat for a coating of gore, while the bleeding severed head of Jokanaan is handled as though it weighs no more than a packet of cigarettes.

In the pit, conductor Philippe Jordan delivers a disciplined orchestral performance in which the sudden explosions of kitsch savagery have greater impact for emerging from an understated whole. On stage, the quality is more variable. Girlish as Michael's movements are, her voice has been around the block. Formerly a mezzo, she has thrilling chest-notes but a wayward, unfocused top. Volle's heavy, resonant voice is authoritative, Joseph Kaiser's ringing tenor (Narraboth) exciting. Stepping in for Thomas Moser, Robin Leggate is a dapper, disturbing Herod, Michaela Schuster's Herodias blowsily comedic. The ensembles of Soldiers, Jews and Nazarenes are excellent. But I was more bored by McVicar's pinchbeck tribute to Pasolini than I was scandalised or stimulated.

More ennui at the second of Valery Gergiev's Barbican concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which has spent so long as "one of the world's greatest orchestras" that its players now seem uninterested in doing more than making a glossy sound.

Placid as the semi-nudes in Salome, they barely glanced at Gergiev in the Overture to La forza del destino and Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto. They can play this stuff in their sleep, of course, so they left all the sweating to pianist Yefim Bronfman. I considered leaving at the interval. Perhaps Gergiev did too, and said as much, for the second half was as charged as the first was flat. If any conductor can be said to own a symphony, the Pathétique is Gergiev's: a life's unhappiness in four movements. When the musicians of the VPO can play with this much empathy and engagement, one wonders how they can bear to do otherwise.

'Salome' (020 7304 4000) to 8 March

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