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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam