Malin Byström as Salome Photo: © ROH: CLIVE BARDA

Coming to a head

By Robert Thicknesse

Richard Strauss’s 1905 work – a cunning undertaking which, in setting Oscar Wilde’s intentionally inflammatory play of 1891, achieved its aim of creating notoriety and instant fame – is one of those operas that, by transforming its original literary avatar, does a useful job of demonstrating what opera is for. Mozart’s Figaro, The Turn of the Screw, Pelléas et Mélisande, write your own list: the addition of music (and usually the subtraction of text) enables a whole new moral world to emerge. Only a madman would want to see Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca or Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse these days, but the operas they became reach heights of human tragedy (yes, even Tosca) the originals never dreamed of.

Still, it remains open to debate precisely what it is that Strauss does for Salome. The introduction through music of at least the possibility of emotion and a moral standpoint into Oscar Wilde’s determined exercise in Decadent detachment leaves many nauseated; others find that if you dare to engage in the girl’s tragedy it becomes genuinely moving, her harrowing and boundlessly orgasmic Liebestod (and the journey towards it) amply fulfilling the requirements of pity and terror.

David McVicar’s production, now in its third run, feels ever more like a one-woman show, the other roles either peripheral or seeming to have drifted in from somewhere else, as in the case of Michaela Schuster’s Herodias, a kind of squally sitcom pub landlady act. John Daszak puts a lot of work into creating a Herod who can be simultaneously sunk in degradation (and fashionably guilty of corrupting Salome, as the hypnotically original – but highly unerotic – Seven Veils, choreographed by Andrew George, details) and still capable of being grossed out by the girl’s carry-on, but there is not a sharp enough focus on the character, nor weight in the voice, to really convince. Michael Volle orates Jokanaan’s Salvation Army stuff with the correct sort of dazed volume, but the confrontation with Salome is physically tepid – at least ante-mortem.

In a proto-Nazi early 20th century, Herod throws a dinner-party upstairs while in the basement abattoir/toilet drugged sex-slaves slump naked, janitors swab blood from the floor and Jokanaan booms stately imprecations from the bottom of a cistern. The aesthetic is borrowed from Pasolini’s Salò (which you had to go to Paris to see pre-2000). Malin Byström’s Salome, a spoilt, slinky starlet in Es Devlin’s deliquescent frock, shimmies downstairs to slum it with the guards and cleaners and gets the hots for the befouled prisoner, who rebuffs her with Apocalyptic rants. The only way Salome can possess and feast on the mouth that has abused her is to have it separated from its body. Herod objects: a man’s head without the body is an ugly thing…

Byström has sung the role before but this is her first time in it at Covent Garden, and, fresh-faced and slender, she comes as close as you could reasonably expect to Strauss’s ideal of the 16-year-old with the voice of Isolde. If the voice runs out of radiance right at the extremes, it is still a magnificent performance, physically committed, the voice sailing over Henrik Nánási’s vast orchestra even at full throttle. The conductor punctiliously lays out the way Strauss orchestrates every nuance of Wilde’s perfumed imagery, and relishes the textures of dread, horror and knee-weakening gorgeousness the composer so unnervingly unleashes. Until the cataclysmic finale, it even feels rather restrained, but then we get the works, a massive sound-bath of maddened lust. McVicar’s striking, controlled, stylised, slow-march-to-horror staging nicely mirrors the music’s progress, and for once in his work there are no dancing sailors.