Salome, an opera in one act, was written by Richard Strauss who based it on Oscar Wilde’s atypical and rarely performed play of the same name. Wilde wrote the play in French although it was translated into German for the opera adaptation.
First performed in Germany in 1905, the opera quickly gained a reputation in various capital cities as scandalous and offensive due to its biblical, erotic and violent themes. It was banned in New York in 1907.
More than 100 years later, Gale Edward’s Opera Australia production of Salome still has the power to confront an audience, and its exploration of themes of power and sexuality are as thought-provoking and relevant today.
Salome, the dangerous and beautiful daughter of the legendary “whore” Herodias and stepdaughter of the lustful King Herod, is the ultimate femme fatale. As a beautiful and spoiled adolescent, Salome discovers the power of her sexuality and learns she can get anything she wants from men.
That is until she meets the captive Jakanaan (John the Baptist) who has the religious conviction and moral fortitude to reject her. She uses her sexual power over Herod – dancing the infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils” – to exert her revenge over Jakanaan’s rejection and receives his head on a silver platter as payment.
The scene in which she embraces the severed head and grotesquely kisses the previously unattainable mouth of Jakanann is disturbingly sensual. She declares the taste of the blood-covered lips to be bitter and muses that this must be the taste of love.
The jealous Herod then orders her execution.
There are strong performances from Cheryl Barker as Salome and John Wegner as the charismatic Jakanaan. The erotic chemistry in their duets, in which she does everything to seduce him, is powerful and his temptation is evident. Wegner’s strong baritone works beautifully as a foil to Barker’s soprano.
John Pickering is convincing as the lascivious Herod and Jacqueline Dark is imposing and disdainful as the corrupted queen.
This is an intense and dramatic opera and Gale Edward’s direction subtly evokes nuances of our post 9/11 world: it’s hard not to think of the Taliban when Jakanaan predicts that Herodias will be stoned to death.
And the dance of the seven veils is depicted as a male construction of female sexuality which Salome exploits for her own ends. Edwards says of the dance, “each male-created image [is] imposed on women or adopted by women to meet male expectations..to entice, to manipulate, to control, to arouse, to fantasize…and in some cases, just to survive.”
The dancers of the seven veils represent the archetypes of men’s sexual desires: the innocent, the maid, the pole dancer, Marilyn Monroe and the “lady boy” Madonna. The dance performances are powerful and suggest that the true power lies with the dancer/s rather than the weak and voyeuristic Herod.
The consequences of this legendary pact are immediate as we see Herod losing control and becoming increasingly anxious about the repercussions of his murder of Jakanann: Salome is rich with prophetic omens of doom including references to the blood-red moon and the beating wings of the angel of death.
The sumptuous set, designed by Brian Thomson, is a banquet hall decorated with carcasses and the blood spattered drain from the cell of Jakanann.
The gorgeously elaborate costumes created by Julie Lynch underscore the decadence of Herod’s court, in sharp contrast to Jakanann’s rough and dishevelled appearance.
The music is wonderful, thanks to conductor Johannes Fritzsch and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Fritsch simultaneously holds the positions of Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester and Grazer Oper, Austria as well as Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
Salome is playing at the Sydney Opera House until November 3.