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OPERA The sickly sweet smell of success

Salome Royal Opera, London
The moon - all-pervading symbol of night and desire - is glimpsed through closed shutters. The diaphanous figure of Salome emerges from the darkness, "the shadow of a white rose in a silver mirror". The opening moments of Luc Bondy's production of Strauss's Salome (first seen at Salzburg in 1992) are played out in silence. And then a solo clarinet flickers into life and the orchestra begins to shimmer.

These are some of the most sensuous sounds we have in music, but they carry with them the sickly sweet smell of decay. And that inherent contradiction is something Bondy and his set and costume designers, Eric Wonder and Susanne Raschig, pick up to striking effect in their powerful staging. Time and place are non-specific: so are the clothes, an uneasy mismatch of periods. The characters appear as phantoms in the wrong place at the wrong time. The splendour of Herod's court, lavishly suggested in both text and music, is something we can only imagine. Bondy presents us with the crumbling aftermath - dank, deserted rooms, a corridor to nowhere, a catwalk on which "the child of abomination" will parade herself. The sun hasn't shone here for centuries.

At the heart of Bondy's production is a highly provocative realisation of the key encounter between Salome and the object of her desire, John the Baptist. And it's provocative because it's so physical. Bondy de-sanctifies the scene. The Baptist is all man before he is prophet; and Salome's lust is not of the look-but-don't-touch variety.

"He is frightening, truly frightening," she simpers excitedly. And he is: a beast of a man, crawling, quite literally, from a hole in the ground. But then, in one extraordinary moment, as he begs her to seek out her saviour in Galilee, she takes his hand like a child. And just as you begin to believe in the power of redemption, she utters the fateful words: "Let me kiss your mouth."

Bryn Terfel is a tremendous Jokanaan: wild, dangerous, a voice like a clenched fist. But the way he softens for that one moment of compassion, bringing his soft head-tone into play, is something not easily forgotten. Nor is Catherine Malfitano's volatile, enormously courageous Salome. Vocally, it's a bit of a push now. The feathery coloratura, the silvery ascents, as chaste as they are sexy (to be fair, Strauss demands two voices here not one), somewhat elude her. But, my goodness, she can pull out the big notes where they count, and the venom of her final demands for the Baptist's head could strip paint. Physically, she's a dynamo of unruly temperament whose dance of seduction and death never ceases. Small wonder, Bondy is moved to encourage her supple body into such expressive contortions. She is truly, as Herod would put it, "her mother's child".

Herod is the excellent Kenneth Riegel, orange-haired and ridiculous, but always managing to sing, not rant, through his paranoia. And mother is the marvellous Anja Silja, an ageing vamp and a lush, who is ready with the silver charger for her daughter's big moment.

Christoph von Dohnnyi lays bare this most explicit, exotic and decadent of all Strauss scores with a jewelled clarity. The dry Covent Garden acoustic intensifies his scrutiny; the orchestra plays fabulously. But let the final image be of Malfitano's Salome, her foot triumphantly planted on the freshly delivered prophet's head, the bloody shroud like her eighth veil, her mouth eagerly anticipating the bitter taste of that long-awaited kiss. Quite an evening.

n Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2. Box-office: 0171-304 4000

Edward Seckerson