The fact is, I’ve never particularly liked Strauss. I don’t mean I dislike it, just that I haven’t yet heard any that really grabbed me, and as there is so much great music out there and so little time, I’ve never made a great effort to work through more of it than happened to come my way through orchestral playing. So, why did I decide to go and see Salome? Firstly, my friend Heather is a great Strauss fan, and has been insisting I can learn to love him; she also pointed out that he can sound quite Wagnerian, which appeals to me. Secondly, my friend Faye made me watch part of her Salome DVD (although she is not particularly a Strauss fan, she is however a great Terfel fan), and I did quite enjoy the big John the Baptist scene, although this may have something to do with the excellent Mr Terfel’s performance.
So, the ENO version. I enjoyed it very much and, having not twigged that it was so short, was really quite disappointed with how soon it was all over. Salome was played by Cheryl Barker, who appears to have been spending her spare time hanging round Camden Market, so convincing was her portrayal of a stroppy goth teenager. At the start I wasn’t entirely convinced by her singing, but the performance did not have to continue long before she increased in strength, clarity and expressivity – with the finale totally gripping. I very much enjoyed John Graham-Hall’s performance; he sang superbly and characterised the mixed emotions of Herod to perfection, ably assisted by Sally Burgess as Herodias. The supporting cast was also strong, even in the smallest of roles. In case it hasn’t become clear from my previous comments in reviews, bass/baritone voices have a particular appeal for me, and so I was particularly interested in the role of Jokanaan (John the Baptist). In the past I haven’t been quite able to decide what I thought of Robert Hayward; I have to confess I was somewhat underwhelmed by his Wotan last year, and didn’t feel much better able to comment after seeing him in Berg’s Lulu some months later. However, it was clear from his first notes (delivered from underneath the stage) that this was going to be a performance of a different calibre. When he finally emerged, his voice seemed absolutely huge, not to mention rich in tone and commanding in presence. I have definitely been forced to re-evaluate my opinion of him (not to mention Strauss!)
I am a fan of the ENO orchestra, and there was certainly some very high quality playing going on. However, although they generally played very well together as a unit, I felt there was some misjudgment of dynamics, in particular the balance between different instruments or sections. As I said at the beginning, I don’t know the score well, and perhaps Strauss intended the startlingly loud random bits of glockenspiel, trombone, etc., and for the orchestra to sometimes drown out the singers, but I somehow doubt it was supposed to be like that. (Experts, do correct me if I’m wrong here!)
Lastly, the visual aspect of the production. The set was fairly basic, but looked good and felt appropriate, as did the costumes. But how were they going to stage Salome’s dance? Given that in recent years there seems to have been something of a fixation with nudity, surely this was one of the few times when stripping off would be genuinely justified, indeed, required in the story? I can’t remember the last opera I saw either at Covent Garden or The Coliseum that didn’t have at least partial nudity in it (springing to mind are gold-painted dancing guy in sparkly G-string in Maskarade, naked Rheinmaidens in the ROH Ring, Hagen changing into his nightwear on stage in the ENO Ring, all the way back to the entirely random stark naked woman running around in the trenches in Freischutz in 1999). But does Salome take her clothes off? Oh no – no flesh on display now. Ankle length dress on the whole time, and all poor Herod gets to see is when she decides to climb up a ladder and let him have a quick peek up her skirt. No offence to Ms Barker, but the dance was not remotely sexy. Oh well. Can’t have everything.