Macabre, provocative, sexually-charged, unrelentingly intense; Northern Ireland Opera’s visceral interpretation of Richard Strauss’s opera Salomewas all these things and more. And few who were present are ever likely to forget the sight of soprano Giselle Allen’s Salome, drenched in John the Baptist’s blood and pleasuring herself, in paroxysms of ecstasy, with his decapitated head.
This matinee performance was undoubtedly a stimulating alternative to church and Sunday lunch. As one well-heeled septuagenarian lady commented at the end of this very rock ‘n’ roll show: “I’ve never spent a Sunday afternoon quite like that before.” Nor Allen, as like as not.
In shaking up the status quo it is certainly job well done for director Oliver Mears and the team of Northern Ireland Opera. For if opera in this part of the world is to continue to attract sponsors, patrons and new audiences alike then it must cast off its somewhat stuffy, elitist robes, jettison its archaic language and present a more modern image and vernacular, one that resonates with 21st century audiences.
Just as Strauss took artistic liberties with the text of Oscar Wilde’s original play – pruning mostly – so too NI Opera puts its very personal stamp on the staging of this Victorian-era libretto. Annemarie Wood’s set design lifts this dramatic Biblical episode out of its traditional, moonlight-bathed Palestinian palace setting and plonks it in a time and space somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and The Sopranos.
The modern Americana of a flower-rimmed cottage– complete with framed photos on the mantelpiece – and teddy bears in the yard makes for an oddly homely setting for the beer-drinking, card-playing Jews and the drug-cartel sleaziness of the two bare-chested soldiers, rifles slung sloppily over their shoulders, beers and smokes on the go.
Among uniformly excellent performances across the cast the lecherous, hedonistic Herod (tenor Michael Colvin), the louche, manipulative Herodias (mezzo-soprano Heather Shipp) and the fire and brimstone Jokanaan (bass-baritone Robert Hayward) – booming prophesies of doom and salvation from the depths of his cistern-turned-prison cell – steal the early thunder as the tension steadily mounts.
The Jews are volatile, “tearing each other in pieces over their foolish ceremonies,” observes Salome. Just before Naraboth (tenor Adrian Dwyer) takes his own life – consumed by jealousy at Salome’s lust for Jokanaan – the prophet hears “the beating of the wings of the angel of death.” Not only death, but madness too is in the air.
The myriad passions of Wilde’s almost Shakespearean libretto are magnified by Strauss’s voluptuous, surging score, brilliantly interpreted by the sixty-one piece Ulster Orchestra under the baton of conductor Nicholas Chalmers.
The orchestral music, whilst inexorably bound up in the unfolding drama is almost overpowered by the extraordinary vocal performances; Allen is utterly commanding in what is one of opera’s most challenging soprano roles. The acting is equally gripping and there’s a vibrancy about the characters’ movements that makes for compelling viewing, rendering the fact of the non-Biblical scenery irrelevant.
Dancer Hayley Chilvers has come from London for the iconic Dance of the Seven Veils and she does not disappoint. Choreographed by Movement Director Anna Morrissey, Chilvers’ incarnation as the sixteen-year old Salome, dancing for the as yet unnamed prize of Jokanaan’s head, is steamily erotic in her role as virgin-whore.
From this point onwards Mears’ directing hand grabs the audience by the throat.
Chilvers is a tough act to follow but with the music swirling in heady maelstrom, Allen’s lung-busting delivery either side of the beheading and her depraved gyrations with the decapitated head are compelling and shocking in equal measure.
Salome’s murder by strangulation on Herod’s orders is another bold deviation from the original text yet so much more in keeping with the graphic nature of the tale than Wilde’s strangely unconvincing crushing to death of Salome by the soldiers’ shields.
In tackling Salome, Northern Ireland Opera does not shy away from the filth, the blood, the voyeurism and the sex. Love and death are indeed messy. This reality is at the core of Salome and in embracing it, Mears and his outstanding company have delivered an opera as riveting as any to ever grace a Belfast stage. Ian Patterson
Photos by Opera NI.