The closing scene of Luc Bondy's terrific production, newly returned to the Royal Opera House, succeeds where so many fail, in making a tragic figure, a sad, lonely, unloved figure, of Wilde's daughter of darkness. Salome is "her mother's child" all right, born of indifference and lust, raised in darkness to reside in darkness. But she is also a victim, of resentment, of abuse, a living symbol of the lost innocence (as in "slaughter of the innocents") that will be her cruel stepfather's terrible legacy. Indeed, the whole look and feel of Bondy's staging suggests that Salome is Herod's just retribution, and that he and his are condemned to relive this terrible night for all eternity while his kingdom decays around him (so lavishly suggested in both text and music but here depicted as a crumbling aftermath). It's this sense of decay and decomposition that the conductor Christoph von Dohnnyi conveys so starkly in his well-seasoned reading of Strauss's outrageous score. For once, it isn't the sensuousness but the subversiveness, the underbelly of the score, that you remember. The dementia of fractured brass fanfares, the lowering tuba occluding all light, the reptilian woodwinds, contra bassoon worming its way into the substratum of Strauss's imagination. The ROH orchestra play the hell out of it.
At the heart of Bondy's production is a provocative realisation of the key encounter between Salome and the object of her desire, John the Baptist. Provocative because it's so physical. Bondy's Baptist - as shared in this run of performances between Robert Hale and Bryn Terfel - is all man before he is prophet. And Salome is not afraid to touch what she cannot have. "He is frightening, truly frightening," she simpers, excited by his anger, his pent-up aggression. He is capable of physical violence, this man. Which makes for a real frisson of mis-read signals when, in a moment of compassion, of tenderness, he inadvertently touches her, imploring her to seek out her saviour in Galilee. As Salome meekly takes his hand like a child, you'll almost believe in the power of redemption. But then come the fateful words: "Let me kiss your mouth." There's no answer to that save "Du bist verflucht" ("You are accursed") which both Hale and Terfel delivered here like a clenched fist.
Physically and vocally, both were commanding. Hale strove to regain the character's lost dignity more than did Terfel whose anger was the more palpable - almost too palpable. The top of the voice showed signs of shrinking from the pressure. Even so, a real presence. As was Catherine Malfitano's Salome. No one singer that I know of truly encompasses all the vocal and physical requirements of the role. But Malfitano believes she does, and that is half the battle. It's a brave and volatile and physically petulant performance. She has the big notes (albeit at a push for the topmost), she has the problematic low notes, sepulchral and venomous. What she doesn't have any more is the girlish fioritura, the silvery ascents, as chaste as they are sexy. But with a little imagination...
Which leaves the Herods, Kenneth Riegel and Anja Silja: he orange-haired and ridiculous, as free with his words (marvellous diction) as with the promises he can't keep, and still managing to sing through his paranoia; she looking and behaving more and more like Patsy in Ab Fab, ready and waiting with the silver charger in her daughter's moment of triumph. The dysfunctional family, BC. And how.
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