Strauss, Oscar Wilde and Northern Ireland Opera combine in a sexy, dangerous and accessible production at Belfast's Grand Opera House
Richard Strauss’s Salome is a dissonant, lavishly dark opera with an erratic score that retains those dramatic overtures of the late flowering of German Romanticism most commonly associated with the ever extravagant Wagner. From blasting and brutal to the sensual and sexually loaded 'Dance of the Seven Veils' – what remains the best known musical section of the work – this is like voodoo opera, music that embodies the scandal and darkness of the ancient story of a femme fatale par excellence.
The biblical version is well known: Salome, daughter of Herodias, dances such an apparently sensual dance that king Herod is so enraptured, bewitched and deranged by desire that he offers her whatever on earth she most wants. Salome – in some versions goaded by her mother – asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.
In 1891 the indubitably decadent Victorian literary genius, Oscar Wilde, elaborated on the story for his play, ramping up the raunchiness and relishing in adding blasphemous touches. Wilde, of course, was no fan of religious dogma or conventional notions of morality, which to him, as to all decadents of the era, signified a tendency to the greatest sins of all: banality, a fanatical tendency to boringly follow social norms (measuring time in coffee spoons, as it were), and an unwillingness to scandalise with a suitably debauched, bohemian lifestyle.
Wilde’s play adds a greater sexual charge between Salome and John the Baptist; she is desirous of the apostle and he feels the temptation of her charms. Wilde also took the added step of adding a gruesome denouement, with Salome kissing the severed head of the now revered saint.
Little wonder then that the play was banned on its English publication in 1894 (Wilde had penned the original in French) and when composer Strauss decided to adapt the story for one of his greatest works in 1905, even the Met in New York refused to stage the piece for decades. Thankfully Northern Ireland Opera have adapted the opera for two shows at Belfast's Grand Opera House.
Strauss, raised a Catholic but later an apostate, once described the character of John the Baptist in correspondence as an ‘imbecile’ and this opera is really a paean to both the joy and terror of sexual desire as against abstinence dictated by religious obedience.
Northern Ireland’s Giselle Allen sings the difficult lead part with aplomb, but is replaced for the iconic dance by Hayley Chivers in a somewhat awkward move. Allen’s voice soars and has great power, but Chivers’ 'Dance of the Seven Veils' is a mesmerising achievement of choreography; she moves balletically, sinuously, suggestively, then becomes overtly sexual, a temptress who knows exactly how to keep men fatally in thrall, all Belle Dame sans Merci.
Salome’s terrible beauty, sex appeal and her demonic demand have captivated artists from Caravaggio to Klimt and a huge mythology swirls around both her and the all important dance. Chivers rises to the moment wonderfully. She strips naked at the end of the sequence and this feels organic because the eroticism must be so extreme as to make a king agree to behead the Baptist here referred to as Jokanaan, who emerges strong and muddied from a kind of sewage-pit cell, and is excellently portrayed by Robert Hayward, before he meets his gruesome fate.
This danse macabre is at the epicentre of Strauss’s molten, mercurial work and Chivers stalks liminally between ingénue and knowing sexuality, splaying her legs, shaking her hair out wild, then holding a stuffed toy suggestive of girly innocence and virginity – it’s an unsettling and seductive mix that undoes the king’s reason and seals Jokannan’s horrific demise.
This production is racy, featuring arias infused with sexual charge, and gory in the manner of Seneca. Allen’s Salome not only kisses the severed head of the martyr but writhes with it like an object of erotic possession, blood covering her dress and mouth. It is shocking and astonishing to watch Allen become as mad as Ophelia as she laughs in glee at her terrible achievement.
This being conservative and patrician Northern Ireland, much was made in certain parts of the media about the on-stage nudity, to which I say, catch a grip and arrive in the 21st century, please. This Salome is the most compellingly dark and darkly thrilling opera I have witnessed – as usual NI Opera have found a way to make an often stuffy, elitist art form sexy, dangerous and accessible.