The best Salome you ever heard

MUSIC

Sex In opera is invariably oral. It resides within the voice - the only zone the lyric stage regards as erogenous - vouchsafing the careers of the unsightly and allowing Richard Strauss to write the title role in Salome for a 16-year-old temptress with the lungs of an Isolde (his words). It's the sort of expectation only opera-lovers understand. Experienced in compromise, we watch the temptress with our ears and let imagination do the rest.

On very rare occasions, though, we're given a performance so complete it begs no compromise at all. And such is Catherine Malfitano's mesmerising Salome - back at Covent Garden in a revival of the Luc Bondy production that knocked audiences sideways when it first appeared two years ago. Ms Malfitano isn't 16, she's approaching 49. But on the stage, years drop like veils to leave a perfect Palestinian Lolita with a virtuosic line in under-age depravity. And at the same time she produces an electrifying sound: not quite Isolde and not always strong enough against the 100- piece orchestral barrage, but impactful, energised, and qualifying the attack where necessary with subtleties that really register in this production.

Bondy's staging is close-focus. The touristic spectacle of life in Herod's palace doesn't interest him: just the inner world of its unsavoury elite, with every small exchange intensely spotlit in a dark and empty space. Salome's dance is witnessed solely by her family. And you appreciate why any breach of the domestic circle - made by John the Baptist, Narraboth, the soldiers at the end - means death.

Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Anja Silja, a distinguished Salome herself of old) are as before, in the original production, and equally impressive. Only Bryn Terfel's Baptist was missing on the first night, and it was missed: the startling dimension of that voice last time round left no doubt that in Strauss's opera (and Oscar Wilde's play, from which it derives) John the Baptist gives Salome a run for her money as chief sex interest. Robert Hale, the substitute, ran less convincingly. But we did get Christoph von Dohnanyi again to conduct; and though his take on this piece is more tough than opulent, the curdled, rancid beauty of the orchestration was magnificently realised. Every detail told, with all the anxiously neurotic emphasis Strauss could have wanted - from the nervous tic of the double basses during the execution to the brazen blare of the big, falling motif (so oddly like a sour distortion of Tchaikovsky) at the end.

Ninety years old now, Salome may never shock the bourgeoisie as it did, but it's the task of directors and conductors to communicate some sense of why the piece was banned from London and Vienna in its early life. Between them, Bondy and Dohnanyi do, emphatically. Old bourgeois that I am, I went home traumatised.

The RPO's grand Eastertide performance of the Verdi Requiem at the Albert Hall didn't carry quite that impact, but it was a powerful show of strength from the orchestra's new music director, Daniele Gatti, and a good use (for a change) of the vast space the RPO currently calls home. Verdi may have insisted that the first performance of the Requiem take place in a church (fighting the Milanese ecclesiastical authorities, who didn't like the idea of female singers on their premises), but thereafter he was quick to exploit its commercial potential in any large and resonant place.

The score is hardly steeped in sanctity: it aligns itself with the vocal world of Aida, anticipating similar resources and a similar stylistic approach. That's exactly what it got here, with Sharon Sweet as the soprano, Dennis O'Neill as the tenor, and a conductor whose chief gift is a powerful sense of drama rooted in experience of Italian opera. It was a superb performance: eloquent as well as massive, with immaculately crafted features like the cream-smooth cello-section unison at the beginning of the Offertorium.

It's a long time since I heard the RPO in such good shape. Just two things rattled me. One was the bass drum, which was never squarely on its syncopated beat. The other - more general - was the way the RPO continues to promote itself as "Britain's and Classic FM's national orchestra". Each time I see that tag I shudder. It's absurd, tacky, and meaningless beyond an implication that the purveyor of the World's Most Beautiful Music has declared itself a sovereign state. No doubt the time will come; but until then, the RPO could find better things to call itself.

It's always heart-warming to see British singers doing well abroad and to realise that it's not just our big names who are in demand, but artists who never quite break through the recognition barrier on home ground. Last weekend I was in Belgium and caught a touring double-bill of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and Menotti's The Medium playing with a largely British/ Irish cast. The singers included Rosie Ashe, Joe Corbett and Susannah Self. The company was Muzicktheater Transparant, which I'd call Belgium's answer to Opera Factory except that it seems to have acquired a more establishment (and reliable) status.

The two shows were ingeniously linked by the director, Douglas Horton, so that Bernstein's rockily-married couple, Sam and Dinah, walk into the next opera as Menotti's Mr & Mrs (Sam & Dinah) Gobineau, bereaved parents. In Tahiti they were living puppets - Dinah a Barbie doll in a nylon wig and Sam a Peewee Herman clone - which isn't quite the spirit of a piece where the emotions are for real and play against a passionate, verismo- leaning score. But it worked because the performances were convincing, the musical direction (Etienne Siebens) forceful, and the design (Dan Potra) nothing short of brilliant: an enormous, cartoon-quality double bed, tipped forwards with the singers bursting out of advent-calendar- like openings in the bedclothes. Symbols of disintegrating marriage come no clearer.

'Salome', with Bryn Terfel as John the Baptist, continues on Tues & Fri at the ROH, WC2 (0171-304 4000).

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea