Opera Salome The Coliseum, London

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The Independent Culture
Say what you like about David Leveaux's new production of Salome for English National Opera, he doesn't fudge the climax. "The child of abhomination" has her way, the prize is duly delivered, bloody and dripping, into her arms. She cradles it, caresses it, nurses it. The kiss, when it comes, is passionate and protracted, as if the head were still attached to the body. In Salome's heart and mind, it is - a thing of beauty. And it's hers. It doesn't leave her arms until the soldiers cut her down.

Oscar Wilde would have liked that - a touch of humanity, of pity almost, to temper the shock-horror, the divine decadence of the moment. For the rest, he'd have recognised the frocks (pointedly of his time and social milieu), but not the dangerous and exciting air of sexual electricity which must pervade the piece. It's there in the shot-silk and suppuration of Strauss's score, of course - and I can see how and why Leveaux might have chosen to play against it. He and his choreographer Wayne McGregor go an interesting way with the Dance, counterpointing the sensuousness of the music with convulsive, aggressively sexual movement. Salome on heat, indeed. But they don't go far enough. The desultory flash of the tits, the cheap thrill (is that it?), that Salome gives Herod at the climax only works if what goes before is sufficiently full-blown to ensure an anti-climax. But like so much of the show, the effect is half-baked, the scale of gesture too small to read on the big Coliseum stage. It just isn't, dare I say it, "operatic" enough.

The context of Vicki Mortimer's set is one of terminal decay (had she and Leveaux seen Luc Bondy's production?) - a crumbling wall, a garden of barren trees and scorched earth, a child's swing - but all it houses is a somewhat low-key domestic drama. Again, that may have been Leveaux's intention, but then how do we reconcile that to Salome's inexplicable penchant for wall-ladder acrobatics? Or is that a concession to the danger so conspicuously lacking elsewhere?

Punches are pulled in the pit, too. Rather like Leveaux's staging, Andrew Litton's conducting is intelligent, aware, finely controlled, but not actually that exciting. The transparency is marvellous - the fantasmagorical shimmer and glitter, the reptilian freakishness of it all - and let it never be said that Litton doesn't know which chords to hit. The Baptist's descent into the cistern, the crunching dissonance at the height of Salome's ecstasy, were literally terrific. But still I sensed a certain holding back - an overriding air of circumspection. Perhaps out of deference to Kristine Ciesinski's Salome - physically super, often very beautifully sung, really sung, on the lyricism of the line, but short on what it takes to ride the swells of depravity. Too few words are audible. Not so in the case of Robert Hayward's sonorous Jokanaan or Alan Woodrow's ringing Herod - or indeed Sally Burgess's indomitable Herodias, so clearly the child's mother, not least in the way she looks on as Salome has her way with the object of her desire, tempted, one senses, to join in. Her first entrance is impeccably timed to coincide with a long, bilious contra-bassoon solo. How apt for the mother of abhomination and monstrous bad taste. Maybe there should have been more of that in the show.

n To 3 July. Booking: 0171-632 8300

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