Saturday, 13 January 2018

Blood, sex, violence & incest, but subtlety too: Richard Strauss' Salome at Covent Garden

Richard Strauss: Salome - Malin Byström, Duncan Meadows - Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Richard Strauss: Salome - Malin Byström, Duncan Meadows - Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Richard Strauss Salome; Malin Byström, John Daszak, Michaela Schuster, Michael Volle, dir: David McVicar / Barbara Lluch, cond: Henrik Nánási; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 12 2018 Star rating: 4.5
Lyric soprano Malin Byström makes a lithe and wonderfully petulant teenage heroine in a strong revival

David McVicar's production of Richard Strauss' Salome at Covent Garden (revived by Barbara Lluch) remains as powerful and stylish as ever. The production has returned for the third time (seen Friday 12 January 2018), with Swedish soprano Malin Byström in the title role, plus David Butt Philip as Narraboth, Christina Bock as the Page, Michael Volle as Jokanaan, John Daszak as Herod and Michaela Schuster as Herodias, conducted by Henrik Nánási.

Richard Strauss: Salome - John Daszak, Michaela Schuster - Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
John Daszak, Michaela Schuster - (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
McVicar's production uses the image of the grim down-stairs of Herod's palace (designs Es Devlin) as a metaphor for the nastiness at the heart of Herod's court. There is plenty of blood and sexual activity (not to mention the famously naked executioner, Naaman, played by Duncan Meadows). But Devlin's designs are remarkably elegant,  particularly the stunning spiral staircase which leads down to the murk. Quite what the real nastiness is, is not quite apparent until the Dance of The Seven Veils when Herod and Salome re-enact a series of rituals/encounters which suggest the history of abuse behind Herod's suggestion that Salome dance for him.

Malin Byström really brought out the contrast between the girlish elegance of Salome's demeanour and the virulent intensity, not to mention peversity of her desires. The 1940s setting helped, so that Byström's dress could easily have been that of an older teenager or young 20 year old, and Byström's performance was remarkably lithe, almost elfin-like at times.

Richard Strauss never did produce the revised orchestration of Salome which would have enabled lighter sopranos to sing the title role, though he talked about it. But with good management, the role remains possible for certain types of lyric. Byström debuted her Salome last June (2017) in Amsterdam, and she has recently started singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier so is clearly moving into heavier territory.

Richard Strauss: Salome - David Butt Philip, Malin Bystrom - Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
David Butt Philip, Malin Byström (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
As Salome she occasionally lacked the sheer heft which we have grown used to having heard Birgit Nilsson on disc, and a sequence of dramatic sopranos singing the role (the first Salome, Marie Wittich, was a distinguished Brunnhilde). But Byström made it work, I never felt short changed, and for the closing scene she brought an astonishing amount of power to the performance. The advantage of having a voice like Byström's was that she was able to singing with a malleability and litheness which emphasised the character's youth. Dramatically she was all pout and petulance, yet this was beautifully matched by the varied character of her musical performance as she moulded the vocal line.

The contrast was astonishing, a teenager having a little-girl strop about getting her own way, but the object of her desire so shocking. In the final scene, Herod (John Daszak), Herodias (Michaela Schuster) and the court stand by in fascinated horror as Salome slavers over the disembodied head (which leaks blood alarmingly, a nice touch in the production).

The whole production had a litheness and fluidness which matched Byström's performance. Conductor Henrik Nánási controlled the huge orchestral forces finely, drawing passionate playing from them but sophisticated too and never over-pressing things to overwhelm Byström. Nánási ensured that the music flowed admirably, and whilst it never had the driving power of some interpreters, I rather welcomed fleet, fluent style.

Richard Strauss: Salome - Michael Volle, Malin Byström - Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Michael Volle, Malin Byström (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Tenor John Daszak's move into more dramatic territory has substantially happened out of the UK, though we have heard him recently in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at ENO [see my review] and we caught him in the title role of Ginastera's Bomarzo at the Teatro Real in Madrid [see my review]. Here we were lucky enough to catch his role debut as Herod. Daszak sang with lithe, yet heroic tone, having the advantage of relative youth (he made his Covent Garden debut in 1996) he really sang the role rather than giving us musical barking, as can happen. And acted it to, this was a wonderfully coherent and intense depiction of a man at the edge, matching Byström for both litheness and petulance.

Michaela Schuster (looking remarkably like the actress Frances Barber), made a stylish and striking Herodias. An older woman, yes, but not the raddled harridan, and Schuster made the most of the wonderful one-liners that Richard Strauss/ Oscar Wilde/Hedwig Lachmann give her, such as 'Der Mond is nur der Mond, das ist alles'. But Schuster also brought  out the gradual sense of disturbance as she saw the extent of her daughter's desires.

David Butt Philip was a strong Narraboth, singing with heroic lyric tone and intensity, with Christina Rock as the love-sick and pained page. Michael Volle sounded just right as Jokanaan, giving his pronouncements a warmth and beauty that was just right. The production's concept of the figure of Jokanaan is as a rather shabby, tramp-like figure very far from Salome's description of him, clearly the result of her fevered imagination.

The smaller roles were strongly cast with a mixture of youth and experience, with Dietmar Kerschbaum, Paul Curievici, Hubert Francis, Konu Kim and Jeremy White as the Jews and Kihwan Sim and Dominic Sedgwick as the Nazarenes, John Cunningham as the Cappadocian, and Levente Pall and Alan Ewing as the soldiers.

For all relish in the blood, gore, sex, violence and incest, the production also had a vein of subtlety to it with Malin Byström, John Daszak, Michaela Schuster and the cast, and conductor Henrik Nánási uncovering the multilayeredness of Strauss's music, made more remarkable for not being gone at hell-for-leather.

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