A Salome driven up the wall by lust

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Opera houses like Salome. It is one of Richard Strauss's most problematic operas, and runs dangerously close to artistic failure, but this barely seems to count. It is a shocker, and that's what matters, its necrophilia and severed heads guaranteeing pictures in the press and tickets across the counter. Last year Covent Garden bought in a production from Salzburg, and now the London Coliseum has a new one all of its own. Happily, as it turns out, the ENO production is not bad at all.

"A scherzo with a fatal conclusion," Strauss called it coyly. A succes de scandale at its premiere in 1905, Salome's exaggeration and discord pushed musical style to its limits. From the first bar's snaking, febrile clarinet to the pinched, high double bass that accompanies John the Baptist's decapitation, the score is peppered with notorious sounds. And what struck one at the Coliseum was the quality, the sheer relish, of the orchestral playing. Under the direction of the young American conductor Andrew Litton, even the Dance of the Seven Veils - those 10 minutes of tacky, sub-oriental schlock - came across as integral and almost important.

The famous dance was tacked on after the rest of the work was finished, which says a lot about the opera's and the composer's integrity. "Dance for me, Salome?" Herod sings, at a moment of complete disjunction in score and drama, and his words clang in out of nowhere. The cogency of this production was such that when Herod sang his phrase it seemed just creepily inevitable. The director, David Leveaux, has done his share of Pinter in the theatre, indeed he has directed the great man himself, and this rubbed off nicely. La famille Herod were a dysfunctional trio, all selfishness, miscommunication and egoism, and it made good dramatic sense. Herod witters on, offering his stepdaughter fruit for her pearly teeth to tear apart, oblivious of all desire except his own; his wife, Herodias, prowls around assessing the latest moral outrage, but only so that she can approve of it.

Whether Vicki Mortimer's set is as subtly conceived as the direction is less clear. The Coliseum's stage is dominated by a ruined grey wall, stuck through with metal ladders and assorted steel joists, the purpose of which is mysterious. Salome, in red velvet, clambers up this wall in the name of lust, exhibitionism and gymnastics, as do others of her acquaintance, although what they do up there could just as well be done on the ground a lot of the time. To one side a group of sad folk in rags watches their antics, from within a spinney of blasted trees. From the other, Herod's court - a pack of running dogs in white tie, bourgeois capitalists to a man - looks on contentedly.

And then there's John the Baptist (called Jokanaan in the opera), emerging from his dungeon to reveal a character of vile smugness. He spat at Salome, and she loved it. Baritone Robert Hayward's performance was powerfully sincere, and the singing and acting was good all around him: Sally Burgess in penetratingly lush voice as Herodias, the merest flick of her gown enough to turn Herod - fine, spacious tenor Alan Woodrow - to jelly. The single deficiency to note, in fact, is Salome herself. Kristine Ciesinski's voice fought and lost against the orchestra in the pit on the opening night. Her acting - even her expressionist dancing - was impressive. But the vocal projection wasn't there. At the end of the opera Strauss indulges his heroine with long acres of post-Wagnerian crowing, and in the right circumstances the audience leaves on a rush of guilty elation. Not so this time: the final minutes were gnawed by tedium.

Which is one criticism not to be levelled at Blood on the Floor, the substantial and dangerous new piece by Mark Anthony Turnage premiered at the South Bank this week. The title is taken from a livid, soulless painting of Francis Bacon's, and the work, nine movements - "Shout", "Needles", "Cut Up", and so on - is "an exploration of aspects of urban alienation and drug addiction", with an elegy at its centre for Turnage's younger brother who died from a drug overdose last year. Scored for three jazz soloists and large ensemble, it carries Turnage's jazz-in- modernism project a step further, and its cumulative energy fairly knocks you down.

As in earlier works, brutality and volume are essential hallmarks, and the Ensemble Modern skidded, collided, and smashed with the best of them. If the integration of jazz and modern was the idea, I'm not sure it succeeded. If it is meant as some kind of battle, on the other hand, with the jazz contingent knocking the conservatoire boys off their feet, it is a triumph. At the age of 36, Turnage's reputation as an orchestral master looks justified: he's a genius, to be a bit particular, with the contrabassoon, the tuba, and all the irregulars of the modern ensemble.

In "Crackdown", the new work's penultimate movement, his jazz soloists took flight in a trio of volatile funkiness, which swept the raucous idiom on either side into oblivion. John Scofield, guitar, Peter Erskine, drums, and Martin Robertson, saxophone, weren't all easy with conducted time, but they were stars all the same. Turnage has promised to work more in jazz, and he should be held to it.

Quieter waters flowed at the QEH earlier in the week, in a recital by Balamurali Krishna and Ravikiran, two inspired South Indian musicians - the name of the latter, if I have my Sanskrit right, means "Sunray". Ravikiran played the chitraveena, a kind of large fretless sitar, plucking the strings with his right hand while rubbing them with a cylinder of Teflon held in his left. Bison horn was the material in olden times, he said, but Teflon did the trick.

A more pliable, flexible sound one will rarely hear, and the variety of tone and colour produced in a swift sequence of ragas was extraordinary. Later, incredibly, similar feats were performed by Balamurali Krishna, this time with the voice. Sitting cross- legged, his rich bass-cum-tenor swooped and decorated. All traditional music in India originates in, or aspires to, the vocal, and from this example one understood why.

Finally, a word on Opera Theatre Company of Dublin, back for a third year at London's Covent Garden Festival. They do Handel, and this year was the turn of Amadigi, a common enough tale of sorcery, suicide and seduction. In Wren's church of St Clement Dane's it was performed with wit and style, and on limited resources. Majella Cullagh's sorceress was dastardly, countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny - Amadigi - tripped up on his semi-quavers but has an impressive voice, while the London Baroque Sinfornia played with a swell of delight. But my vote went to G F Handel, the quota of poignant arias and stirring sinfonias in even the rarer work of whom is absurdly generous. They just kept on coming.

Salome: ENO, WC1 (0171 632 8300), continues Wed & Fri. Michael White returns next week.

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