Culture

Salome review – lethal desires and emotional extremism

Having canceled Thursday’s performance of Don Giovanni as a mark of respect following the death of the Queen, the Royal Opera went ahead the following night with its revival – the fourth – of David McVicar’s 2008 production of Strauss’s Salome, conducted by Alexander Soddy, making his company debut, and with Malin Byström returning to the title role, which she also sang at Covent Garden in 2018.

Inevitably, we were aware we were hearing it at a turning point in history. A book of condolence had been opened in the foyer. The EIIR monogram on the Opera House curtains had been blacked out. People sang God Save the King after a minute’s silence. I wondered whether Strauss’s tragedy of uncontrolled desire might seem incongruous or surreal in the context. In fact, its emotional extremism felt even more cathartic than usual.

Strauss called the opera “a scherzo with a fatal conclusion”, a remark which some have construed as ironic but in this instance is an entirely apt description of Soddy’s interpretation: swift from the outset without ever being rushed, the orchestral sound glistening and slithery, the glutinous harmonies insidiously prised open. But when he reached the final scene, he allowed the pace to slow, and the dissonant lyricism and searing nostalgia that surged out of the pit were simply breathtaking. This is wonderful Strauss conducting, and a most auspicious debut.

A scene from Salome
Salome, relocated to the fascist Italy of the 1930s. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Byström’s tone, meanwhile, has fractionally darkened since 2018, and an edginess has crept into her lowest registers, which means those unsettling descents from Salome’s usual soprano range towards an alto’s low G flat don’t quite have the eerie warmth they once did. Yet she remains a tremendous singer and a real theatrical animal, keeping us just the right side of empathy as she charts the development of Salome’s lethal obsession, and then matching Soddy’s approach by unleashing an engulfing torrent of emotion in the final scene.

What surrounds her, however, is occasionally uneven. Jordan Shanahan sounds good as Jokanaan but doesn’t capture the man’s charismatic fanaticism. John Daszak’s Herod, sinister and dithering, is pushed at times in his upper registers, though Katarina Dalayman makes a formidable Herodias, at once neurotic and unimaginative, as Strauss intended. Revived by Bárbara Lluch, McVicar’s production, relocating the work to the fascist 1930s and drawing some of its imagery from Pasolini’s Salò, has seemed tauter on previous occasions, but retains its horrifying power.

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