Saturday 29 September 2018

Vividly theatrical, lyrically sung, but.... - Salome at ENO

Richard Strauss: Salome - English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)
Richard Strauss: Salome - English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)   
Richard Strauss Salome; Allison Cooke, David Soar, Michael Colvin, Susan Bickley, Stuart Jackson, dir: Adena Jacobs, cond: Martyn Brabbins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Theatre director Adena Jacobs gives us too many ideas in a new production which thrills but does not always engage.

Richard Strauss: Salome - Allison Cooke - English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)
Richard Strauss: Salome - Allison Cooke
English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)   
The opening on 28 September 2018 of English National Opera's 2018/19 season, at the London Coliseum gave us a new production of Richard Strauss' Salome and the UK opera debut of Australian director Adena Jacobs. The title role was sung by Scottish mezzo-soprano Allison Cooke, with David Soar as Jokanaan, Michael Colvin as Herod, Susan Bickley as Herodias, Stuart Jackson as Narraboth and Clare Presland as Herodias' page. The production was designed by Marg Horwell with lighting by Lucy Carter and choreography by Melanie Lane. Martyn Brabbins, music director of ENO, conducted.

With an all-women production team and a gay woman as the director, it was clear that we were going to have an interesting take on Strauss and Wilde's tale of female objectification. Adena Jacobs' background is mainly in the theatre where she has garnered a strong reputation in Australia and her operatic experience, so far, seems to have lain mainly in contemporary repertoire.

Richard Strauss: Salome - David Soar - English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)
Richard Strauss: Salome - David Soar -
English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)   
It started promisingly, a blackened stage, a small crowd watching not the moon but a video of a woman (Salome) in a milky bath, the suggestion of crowd control and waiting for a celebrity, the soldiers as security men. Stuart Jackson's Narraboth was superb, self-absorbed, intense, with voice beautifully clear over the well-controlled orchestra and strong diction, and Clare Presland's (female) page was equally strong. Allison Cooke's Salome did not make a grand entrance, she sidled on, poised, controlled and very feminine, she manipulated Narraboth well. Cooke's voice is on the light side, which meant that despite being a mezzo-soprano in a soprano role (albeit one taken by mezzos) she had a lithe, youthful sound. But, in Richard Strauss' equation ('a sixteen-year-old with the voice of Isolde'), she was much more a teenager than Isolde, and it was Brabbins' superb control of the orchestra which kept the balance well.

When Narraboth takes Salome into the cistern, the backdrop rose to display a bare, off-white interior. David Soar's Jokanaan visible only as a pair of pink high-heeled shoes! The scene between Cooke's Salome and Soar's Jokanaan was tense, both self-absorbed. Soar, wearing only a pair of figure-hugging shorts, had some sort of facial cage with a camera on it and his mouth was projected onto the stage. And to make sure we got the idea, at one point the image was rotated 90 degrees, so the mouth made a vagina-like shape. An interesting idea, especially as Jackson's Narraboth was videoing Salome. But Salome's obsession is with multiple parts of Jokanaan, when she is singing about his eyes, his hair, his skin, all we saw was his mouth.

Soar was a superb Jokanaan, focused, sexy and disturbing, so it was only a shame that when he was off stage the amplification flattened and distorted his voice. When on stage he was riveting. Cooke was relatively cool as Salome, yet intense and disturbed. And to make it clear that this was about sexual obsession, even if her voice did not quite convey it, she took her top off.

Sigh, so far we had had female nudity (I am waiting for a really daring production where it is Jokanaan who is naked) and male transvestism, not to forget the overhead fluorescent light tubes. Oh, and plenty of masturbation (both Salome and Narraboth).

When Herod (Michael Colvin) came on, the scene changed. We lost Narraboth's body (to be replaced by a pool of blood and entrails), and the themes of seeing, video and celebrity disappeared entirely from the production. To be replaced with, what? A giant, decapitated  pink 'My Little Pony' which was suspended, adored and disembowelled (to reveal pink floral innards), Jews as the abatoir men clearing up Narraboth's remains, Herodias (Susan Bickley) as a sibyl-like character, observing and commenting but never participating, and Herod (Michael Colvin) as a drivelling, demented idiot who spent much of his time cavorting in Narraboth's blood (which stained him bright pink) and caused some (unintended?) hilarity.

Richard Strauss: Salome - Susan Bickley - English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)
Richard Strauss: Salome - Susan Bickley
English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)   
Rather than the poised, woman figure she was at the opening, throughout all this Allison Cooke's Salome was the epitome of Barbie, controlled for Herod's benifit? Perhaps. But Jacob's direction treated each of her characters as an archetype and what the direction lacked was any sense of a relationship between the characters. We never understood who they were. In abstract productions of Salome it is essential that the cast and director create strong and readable interactions, and here all three protagonists were self absorbed.

Only during the Dance of the Seven Veils, when Allison Cooke was joined by a troupe of fellow Barbies, did we get a glimpse of the simmering woman underneath the Barbie mask as Cooke ripped off her long blond wig to reveal a shorter, stronger look underneath. Would that something of this had come over in her vocal performance. Simply Cooke has a voice which is too small for the role, at least in this theatre. Despite Brabbins and the orchestra's superb control, there were too many moments when Cooke's voice did not ride through or over the orchestra. She was always audible (just), but it meant that the performance lacked the flexibility of expression which having the right voice for the role gives you.

That said, it was a mesmerising performance, but during the final scene (when the head of John the Baptist was simply a white plastic bag), no amount of intelligent performance could disguise the limitations of lacking the right fire-power and she rather lost me. This was very much a performance in the making, and I am sure that Cooke will develop into a striking Salome.

Both Susan Bickley and Michael Colvin gave us superbly sung accounts of their roles and I am sure that, left to their own devices, they would have struck sparks off each other. As it was, the two characters hardly interacted, and it was hard to relate Bickley's sybilline utterances or Colvin's self-indulgent behaviour to Strauss and Wilde's drama.

Richard Strauss: Salome - Michael COlvin - English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)
Richard Strauss: Salome - Michael Colvin
English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)   
Jacobs' directorial style, at least on this showing, involves a highly theatrical use of imagery and the manipulation of characters as archetypes. It was as if she didn't see the people that Strauss depicted, but only the archetypes that lie behind them. This was a vividly theatrical evening, perhaps too much so and I felt that Jacobs and designer Marg Horwell had wanted to match the richness and complexity of Strauss's score with a similar richness on stage. Unfortunately, it only came across as business which distracted from the music. Stylistically the whole felt very 70s, and you feel that back in the day, David Pountney and co would have done it rather better. Perhaps that it part of the problem.

And the ending? Well David Nice, writing for The ArtsDesk, detected an element of incest (but not from Herod), though I have to admit that that did not occur to me. It certainly lacked the visceral shock element that any Salome needs.

The main weakness of this production, I think, was that we had too much too soon. It was apparent from early on that Salome was madly disturbed, and Allison Cooke gave a stunning performance thus, but instead, we need to watch her degenerate from Princess to slobbering pscyopath. Similarly, we learned everything that Jacobs wanted to tell us about Michael Colvin and Susan Bickley's Herod and Herodias almost on their first entrances.

The rest of the supporting cast were all strong. The six Jews (Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins and Jonathan Lemalu) made vivid characters despite the need to clean up much fake blood. The two Nazarenes (Robert Winslade Anderson and Adam Sullivan) were just about the only dignified characters on the stage, with Trevor Eliot Bowes as a Cappadocian, Simon Shibambu and Ronald Nairn as soldiers and Ceferina Penny as a slave. It is nice to see ENO using members of the chorus, here Ronald Nairne, Adam Sullivan, Trevor Bowes and Robert Winslade.

I enjoyed the performance from Brabbins and the orchestra enormously. It was wonderfully fluid and transparent with great control and superb clarity. It didn't have the visceral thump of some Salome performances (but then Brabbins didn't have a helden-sopran in the title role), but it was finely crafted and absorbing performance. And, apart from the final scene, it positively flew along.

Richard Strauss: Salome - Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan, Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Jonathan Lemalu - English National Opera (Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore)  
The opera was sung in Tom Hammond's classic translation and it was admirably conveyed by the whole cast.

This was undoubtedly a vividly theatrical evening, with a finely sung account of the title role. And most people in the audience were very vocal in their appreciation of the performance. Perhaps I am getting old and jaded, but I wanted a vivid theatricality in service of the music drama and a Salome who had real power to her voice; or perhaps it is the memories of Josephine Barstow, Hidegard Behrens, Gwynneth Jones and more getting in the way.

Recommended recordings: 
  • Richard Strauss - Salome - Montserrat Caballe, Sherrill Milnes, London Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf
  • Richard Strauss - Salome - Birgit Nilsson, Gerhard Stolze, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, George Solti
Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Huw Watkins - Two concertos and a symphony (★★★½) - CD review
  • Jiri Belohlavek & the Czech Philharmonic in Janacek (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Vital & optimistic: Halle Children's Choir in Jonathan Dove's A Brief History of Creation (★★★½) - CD review
  • Late Romantic: I chat to pianist Margaret Fingerhut  - Interview
  • Decades - songs from 1830-1840, Malcolm Martineau and friends  (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Juditha resurgens: William Vann on reviving Parry's Judith - article
  • Mahler distilled: Iain Farrington and Rozana Madylus in "On Angels' Wings" (★★★½)  - concert review
  • A pastoral delight: Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne in its original version from The Mozartists  (★★★½)  - concert review
  • The other Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera's revival of Isouard's Cendrillon (★★★½) - opera review
  • More than just Haydn: cultural revival at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt  - feature
  • Riveting and remarkable: Anna Prohaska & Eric Schneider in An der Front at Herbst Gold in Eisenstadt (★★★★★) - concert review 
  • Haydn at Eisenstadt: Armida at Herbst Gold festival Schloss Esterházy (★★★★) - Opera review
  • From Haydn and Elgar to Rap and Grime: Matthew O'Keeffe and Brixton Chamber Orchestra  - interview
  •  Home


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  3. Sir, you are too self-effacing in your criticism. Wanting a theatricality in the service of the drama is nothing to apologise for. This was a pretentious and arrogant attempt by an inexperienced director to create something which did not in any sense serve the work. In which case, the answer is to either have the courage to create new work, or sod off. 70s imagery stolen from art museums is not interesting here and certainly does not constitute theatre.


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