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Richard Strauss, Salome: Soloists, English National Opera, Kwamé Ryan (conductor), Coliseum, 19.10.2005 (TJH)



Richard Strauss once described Salome as a “symphony in drama”, a notion he surely borrowed from Tristan und Isolde; and as with that great masterpiece, it is at its most effective when taken as a single breath, like an epic tone poem: episodic, perhaps, but with each episode contributing to a single, overarching whole.  For this reason alone, it is worth heading to the Coliseum in the next few weeks and hearing the talented young Trinidadian conductor Kwamé Ryan do just this.  Making his UK operatic debut, he brings real finesse to the podium, provoking some electrifying playing from the ENO orchestra and crafting a performance which has all the shape and purpose of a great symphony.

It’s all the more pity then, that David Leveaux’s 1996 production is so terribly incoherent.  There seems to be little agreement on stage as to style, tone or even period in the third outing for this baffling oddity of a production.  Tuxedoed, champagne-quaffing gents dominate half the stage, while moth-eaten peasants observe forlornly from the sidelines; Hasidic Jews argue the significance of this new guy, Jesus, while sword-carrying guards stand idly by wearing Russian greatcoats.  Herod offers Salome infinite riches, but if the inside of his palace looks as bad as the backyard – somewhere between bombed-out factory and haunted forest – one can quite understand why she opts for a severed head instead.  Matters are not helped any by director Leah Hausman’s insistence on filling every square inch of the stage with spurious action, and more than once, one’s eye is drawn to something rather lively going on in the background only to find that it is nothing more than an extra engaging in a spot of overacting.

That this distracts from the performances of the principals is a great shame, because it is otherwise very well acted.  Cheryl Barker, as Strauss’s anti-heroine, gives a clear sense of her girlish innocence emerging into a dysfunctional and inappropriate form of sexuality, doubtless informed by her stepfather’s own mutant libido.  As Herod, John Graham-Hall is a leering, drunken monstrosity, whose eyes and hands are everywhere except where they should be, a fact Sally Burgess’s Herodias is not shy in pointing out: her chilly austerity masks a scarcely concealed maternal rage, flashes of which are amongst the evening’s highlights.  Unfortunately, there is a bit of a problem with enunciation, and while one can hardly blame Robert Hayward’s Jokanaan for lack of clarity (his character does spend a lot of time in a dungeon, after all) it would be nice to catch more than one or two words of his proselytising.  But the singing itself is of a generally high standard, and the equally fine acting ensure that one always gets the gist of what is going on.

To be honest, this is the sort of Salome best enjoyed from the cheap seats up in the gods somewhere – consider sitting behind a pillar or perhaps an especially tall person. Bring along a copy of Tom Hammond’s serviceable English libretto, so as you have some idea as to what’s happening, and try your best to avert your eyes during Cheryl Barker’s frankly ludicrous Dance of the Seven Veils.  Or better yet, just close your eyes through the whole thing and simply enjoy the music-making, which really is first rate.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff


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