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).

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