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Salome as directed by Romeo Castellucci
An interpretation by Len Mullenger

Castellucci has come up with a peverse, imaginative, striking and disturbing new production of Salome that at first had me shaking my head and declaring ‘rubbish!’. I only stuck with it because of the absolutely riveting characterisation by Asmik Grigorian. But as I pondered on it and started reading other people’s reviews I came to a more sympathetic conclusion and feel that other commentators have been rather too timid.

Narraboth and the Page open the proceedings by walking slowly in step onto the stage and eventually point to the moon which is the cue for the Opera to begin. Their most striking feature is that the lower halves of their faces are painted red. Later we will see the King and his followers also have red faces. However, Herodias has a green face and Salome does not have a painted face at all. I think the colour is a tribal sigil rather like a living coat-of-arms. If there was a coat-of-arms, Herod’s side would be all red as they are ‘related’, Herodias would have her own family sigil which in this case is green. If it were a coat of arms they would be side by side (quartered). Salome would have both colours on her coat of arms eventually but at sixteen is not yet old enough. The Jews' sigil are their hats.

At her first entrance Salome runs on looking terrified saying that she cannot bear to stay here any longer “Why does the Tetrarch keep looking at me that way?” “It is strange for my mother’s husband to look at me like that” She has come in from a dark place and declares how good it is to see the moon. This is a tale of a young teenager who has been subjected to sexual depravity, probably for several years because we later meet two Salomes. One is a young girl of about 11 who represents the unsullied after which, presumably, the abuse began. Having rushed on to the stage Salome turns and we can see that her white gown is blood-stained at the back. Other commentators have said this is menstrual blood but a 16 year old is capable of coping with that. This is much worse. Salome has been abused by Herod and we are seeing rectal blood.

She hears the Prophet and learns that he is a young man and is desperate to speak to him – NOW please! We see Salome as a petulant teenager. She knows Herod has forbidden this but that just drives her on. Poor Narraboth is subjected to persuasion and manipulation and eventually succumbs. All this has happened quite rapidly but in this short time Asmik Grigorian, who is quite passable as a sixteen year old, has shown the enormous range of her acting abilities. She is totally captivating for the whole of the opera and her singing ability is just as magnificent. When Narraboth says he cannot give her what she wants because Herod has strictly forbidden it she pulled the sort of face parents of all teenage girls will recognize – an incredulous “Oh Really – you reckon?” She then uses all her wiles to successfully persuade him to do what she wants.

In the background we see the first body being dragged in a bag. This is never satisfactorily explained but Salome has said she hates the Romans because thay are so rough so is this the result of a Roman sword? We certainly go on to see more as time passes, some still alive, some dismembered – symbols of a degenerate court. Knowing she is now going to meet Jochanaan she places her crown on her head and puts on her cape, shoes and gloves to make herself as appealing as possible to him. As a black moon rises she is already infatuated with the idea of the prophet whom she has never seen. He is actually not very becoming as he rises from the black pit covered in slime, becoming visible in the centre of the black moon. Salome’s infatuation means she does not see him as he really is, indicated by the projection of a gauze over his face. This gauze will become a persistent feature of the production. At the back of the stage a saddle, stirrups and reins are neatly arranged. To Salome, Jochanaan appears as chaste as the moon and she wants to see him more clearly. She performs a little girlish dance for him but he forbids her to speak to him. His voice is music to her ears. As she declares she is in love with him the black moon gets bigger and bigger eventually engulfing her. Although he is filthy black she deludedly maintains there is nothing in the world as white as his body. Jochanaan curses her and retreats back into his cistern.

At every stage Salome is rejected and eventually this twists and distorts her mind. She wants to touch his body but is told to “Get back, daughter of Babylon, Evil came into this world by woman” In her anguish she declares that his body is now hideous like the body of a leper and she projects this onto poor Narraboth who gets physically pulled about with his arms and wrists being twisted and he is finally cast to the ground. No, in fact, it is Jochanaan’s hair that she loves, like black bunches of grapes, black like the long black night when the moon hides her face. Salome is being subjected to mental torture and, adopting an anguished pose, she pleads to be able to touch his hair but, once again, she is rejected. Your hair is horrible she now declares, wrapping herself in the horse's reins from the back of the stage. It is like a crown of thorns on her head, a knot of black snakes writhing round her neck. In a vocal tour de force she decides it is not his hair she wants but his mouth, which is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. The black moon gets bigger and bigger and Salome is covered in a projected gauze ending up glistening white in a spot of light on a huge black stage. How does one project black? Jochanaan and Salome are now very close. He is tall and standing directly behind her like a huge black bird with she in front, a diminutive, vulnerable but by now deranged fanatic demanding to kiss his mouth. She turns to face him and he puts his arms around her holding her crown and veil declaring that he will never let her kiss him.

The black moon recedes and in a final attempt to appeal to Jochanaan’s sexuality she kneels and places the horses saddle on her back rolling forward onto her palms indicating that she is fully sexually available. Jochanaan does not even notice but curses her as the daughter of an incestuous mother and he descends back into the pit. Salome collapses onto her back and with her legs in the air performs orgasmic, gymnastic movements with her legs. This is all part of the smouldering sexual undertone the producer has decided is the only way to approach this work. Herod arrives looking for Salome who scarpers. It is still dark so his way is lit by by a number of portable drawing-room standard lamps. I must admit I found this risible until I realised this is Castelluci's update of men carrying flaming torches for light in the same way that everyone is wearing suits and not robes or guard uniforms.

This brings us to the huge black horse that appears in the cistern. I believe this is more than just another representation of Jochanaan that some have suggested. Many young girls, before they are even aware of boys and romantic love find they are capable of an innocent love they develop for their pet horses. They are able to whisper all their secrets and pour out their troubles where no-one can hear. Young as they are, here is a huge creature over which they can exert power and control and yet love at the same time. They are not rejected in this but their love is returned unconditionally. The horse represents Salome’s unconditional, pre-Herod love which will become shattered by Herod’s abuse leading to the perverted love she has developed for Jochanaan. This loss of early innocence is symbolised by the decapitated horse’s head that precedes the loss of Jochanaan’s head.

During the argument between Herod and the Jews, Jochanaan is hosed down to remove all the black filth so he emerges as white as Salome’s vision of him. Realising that Herod is willing to reward her with anything she asks, Salome agrees to dance. This is Castellucci greatest innovation and challenge to the audience as there is no Dance of the Seven veils – at least not publically. Instead a semi-naked Salome is positioned on a huge stone adopting an upright foetal position on her knees with her head under her arms and is held there by a black ribbon. This is a bondage situation where she is fully available for Herod to do his worst – but he alone. Far from dancing she remains motionless for several minutes, the only motion being the flickering gauze and a slowly descending rock cage which ends up covering or obliterating her and hiding her from our view. The dance continues in the orchestra and at its climax Salome staggers out in a tortured and distressed state frantically tugging up her dress and flinching from human touch. We can guess what has been going on. She demands Jochanaan’s head on a silver platter. She is again dressed in her crown, standing in a pool of virginal milk but gives a one-finger salute to Herod as he tries to wheedle his way out of his sworn oath. The decapitated horse's head is placed with her. Herod pleads but Salome ignores him, writing frantic messages in the pool of milk.

We enter the final scene of totally deranged horror but instead of the head she desires she only receives Jochanaan’s torso. She is not able to kiss his mouth but she can climb and sit on his torso and plants her crown on the stump. She is now an unstable psychopath whose only fate is to be destroyed. On the wall at the back of the stage large gold letter have been spelling out Iω ΠρO for Ió[annés] pro[phétés], John the prophet. The other letters have now been taken down leaving just the large Greek Omega – symbolising the End.

If only you had looked upon me you would have loved me!

Photo credits: © Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz

Asmik Grigorian is the daughter of the Armenian tenor Gegham Grigoryan (1951–2016) and the Lithuanian soprano Irena Milkeviciute (b. 1947).

Strauss, R: Salome
Wiener Philharmoniker
Franz Welser-Möst
Asmik Grigorian (Salome), John Daszak (Herod), Anna Maria Chiuri (Herodias), Gábor Bretz (Jochanaan), Julian Prégardien (Narraboth)
Salzburg Festival, Grosses Festspielhaus, August 2018
Unitel: Blu-ray 801704, DVD 801608



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