What are we to make of Salome—Richard Strauss’ one-act opera after Oscar Wilde’s one-act play—in an age of religious emergency, female empowerment and sexual awakening?
What are we to make of a woman as both gruesome sexual fantasy and ghoulish sexual aggressor? A woman of the male gaze rendered so powerful? A heroine so shockingly heinous?
What are we to make of this brassy Germanic musical celebration from the turn of the 20th century, with a 17-year-old Adolf Hitler apparently in the premiere audience, in which the blood-thirsty princess sings so rapturously of how impressively white-skinned her desired is?
What can any theatre director make of a biblical tale at the very fringes of humanity, not simply bloody but so brazenly bawdy?
Gale Edwards’ indulgent production, which first premiered for Opera Australia in 2012, reckons with some of that. But it also leans into camp, much to its success. It’s hard to imagine taking any other approach. Her seven veiled dancers (as choreographed by Kelley Abbey) – from Marilyn Monroe lookalike to Japanese schoolgirl to duster-wielding maid to one particularly athletic pole dancer – are the perfect embodiment of toxic male fantasy.
Brian Thomson’s horror house set, part butchers, part Ninja Turtle hangout, is caked with the grime of the underworld. Julie Lynch’s Halloween shop of costumes are the right brand of outrageous. And John Rayment’s lighting design conjures bleakness better than anyone.
Strauss’ score veers violently from cacophonous to sweeping strains we now recognise as filmic. The Opera Australia orchestra felt overbearing in the early scenes of opening night under the baton of Johannes Fritzsch, who makes his debut with the company but has a long resume of German opera repertoire. But the balance improved as the premier singers stepped forth.
Speaking of German opera specialists, American dramatic soprano Lise Lindstrom was a towering Brünnhilde in OA’s 2016 Ring Cycle, and here brings all that fury and fragility to the role of Salome. Across the impressive range it’s a lustrous voice of silvery hues, but with real dramatic heft the right side of cartoonish. She is ice-cold, almost bored by her creepy step-dad and unrequited love, and her duet with the silent severed head in the finale would give any Lucia (di Lammermoor) a run for her money in the madness stakes.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, of course. Mum Herodias stomps from indifference to cheerleader for her murderous daughter, which sees Australia’s best comic mezzo Jacqueline Dark in full flight. Husband Herod is as slimy as he is stupid in the hands of German tenor Andreas Conrad.
Alexander Krasnov’s dusky bass-baritone voice makes its company debut as the imprisoned John the Baptist. It’s a performance of real gravity. Terrific local tenor Paul O’Neill is the guard captain Narraboth and veteran company mezzo Sian Pendry is the lovesick page.
This Salome, protagonist and production, makes no apologies for its outrageousness. And is all the better for it.
Salome plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 26.
Feature image credit: Prudence Upton