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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick