Salome, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

There was a time when a body-double was used for Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils. Now it's a case of casting a soprano who has what it takes to remove that final veil. Or is it? In David McVicar's typically uncompromising new production, Nadja Michael's lissomly girlish Salome is wearing more at the end of her dance than at the start.

In a striking piece of psychological staging, McVicar has Salome lead Herod – and us – down the darkest corridors of her soul. For seven veils read seven rooms. A series of video projections chronicle her development. In the first, we see a rag doll on a chair. Salome sits on daddy's knee just the way he likes it. Very unsettling. By the finish, she wears a ball gown and, true to the spirit of the waltz her music enshrines, takes to the floor with daddy, spinning free only to douse herself in water – a literal and symbolic cleansing. This rite of passage unlocks her deepest desires. The abused child becomes the abuser – and how.

McVicar goes for broke with the depravity. His staging is essentially upstairs-downstairs in a fascist world. In the upper "zoo", the privileged feast; below is a toilet, an abattoir, and more. Salome belongs here. She craves debasement.

It is said that the role of Salome requires a singer with three voices. Michael has, at most, two. She has the wild petulance of a pushed-up mezzo; and the inky middle and bottom register when Strauss has her contemplating the abyss. But she doesn't have the childlike purity and limpidity at the top. Physically and dramatically, however, she's terrific: indolent, sexy, scary.

As Herod, Robin Leggate was a brave last-minute replacement for the indisposed Thomas Moser. He conveyed well the frightened hysteric while never quite being larger-than-life or verbally vivid enough for this house. Still, his slightness was to his advantage beside Michaela Schuster's indomitable, strutting, peacock-blue attired Herodias.

Strong impressions were made, too, by Joseph Kaiser's ringing tenor as Narraboth and Iain Paterson's commanding First Nazarene. In the pit, Philippe Jordan laid bare Strauss's monster orchestra with feverish intent. He exploited the beautiful and beastly elements exhaustively but spared the decibels for the two or three really big climaxes. The return of Jokanaan to the cistern, his curse on Salome still blue in the air, was one. But more deafening still was the terrible silence in anticipation of his execution.

In repertory to 12 March (020-7304 4000)