wed 24/07/2024

Salome, Irish National Opera review - imaginatively charted journey to the abyss | reviews, news & interviews

Salome, Irish National Opera review - imaginatively charted journey to the abyss

Salome, Irish National Opera review - imaginatively charted journey to the abyss

Sinéad Campbell Wallace's corrupted princess stuns in Bruno Ravella's production

Herod (Vincent Wolfsteiner) and Herodias (Imelda Drumm) watch Salome (Sinéad Campbell Wallace) and the head of John the BaptistAll images by Patricio Cassinoni

“Based on the play by Oscar Wilde,” declared publicity on Dublin buses and buildings, reminding opera-cautious citizens that the poet whose text Richard Strauss used for his own Salome grew up only 10 minutes’ walk away from Daniel Libeskind's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Word of mouth, meanwhile, did much in a mere week of performances to spread the news that Sinéad Campbell Wallace’s interpretation of the fast-unravelling teenage princess was a sensation.

The instant standing ovation at the end on Saturday night may be typical for Dublin, but the deafening and sustained cheers, more like acclaim for a pop star, were not. They were richly earned. Campbell Wallace's lyric-dramatic soprano is more handsome than beautiful, but she covered the dynamic gamut of this fearsome role in a way that Strauss would surely have applauded, with an especially terrifying lower register and some surprisingly affecting soft singing.Sinead Campbell Wallace as SalomeSalome's transformation from curious innocent (pictured above) in a depraved world to a monster for whom we still feel some pity could not have been more fine-tuned. In that, Campbell Wallace went to the limits in tandem with director Bruno Ravella's layered psychological drama.

Everything in this total piece of music-theatre helped in that impact, with equal strengths from designer Leslie Travers' bunker set, not without its hallucinatory natural beauties, and Fergus Sheil's transparent 68-piece orchestra. Strauss's two long stretches of non-vocal music were used to turn the screw on Salome's steady degradation. The interlude after Jokanaan returns to his cistern prison, having cursed the girl who's obsessed over him, focused all attention on our so-far-heroine: bedraggled by the water in the pool beneath the initially semi-Eden garden of reeds and a tree with half blood-red leaves, the roots having dripped further rain as the fundamentalist Prophet calms down and baptises Salome (pictured below), her face takes on a hardness which ages her at least 10 years. The dance to get what she wants, cleverly choreographed by Liz Roche for a supple but not (I presume) ballet-trained singer, initially caters for stepfather Herod's fantasy, with Ciarán Bagnall's lighting giving shadow dancers either side of Salome, but turns wild when the music does, ending in crazed water-splashes. Salome and John the BaptistRavella has pared down the surrounding business, so that much of the scene when Herod's court is supposed to arrive on stage keeps it between him, his monstrous, self-satisfied second wife - Imelda Drumm hits the dudgeon spot-on - and his step-daughter: the ultimate dysfunctional family (it's piquant that just before Salome, Strauss had composed a comic-epic symphonic poem about a fundamentally happy trio - himself, his wife Pauline and their son Franz or "Bubi" - in the Symphonia Domestica) - and the Herods are the only participants in the discombobulating final scene.

Everything Herod needs - wine, fruit, a silver platter - is obligingly served by an efficient maid. Religious factions squabbling over interpretation are left as dinner-jacketed loudmouths driving Salome to further depths of despair, not "Jews" per se (and the calm Nazarenes get to wade in the once again baptismal water). It's a tricky scene to clarify, but done to musical and dramatic perfection here (pictured below). Scene from Irish National Opera SalomeIf there's a weakness, it's in the look and sound of Jokanaan. Surely not a smart suit for a man who's been imprisoned? And need Tómas Tómasson bark so relentlessly? The Prophet has his horrid side, as responsible as anyone for Salome's mental disintegration, but there should also be a calm and noble aspect to his preaching. This was a wild man in all the wrong ways; though Ravella gauges the relationship between him and Salome well. The at first chaste princess paces the steps above the pool, only coming dangerously close by steady degrees. Vincent Wolfsteiner's Herod is perfect, though - were this a character-tenor voice, it wouldn't carry the demands of his mounting desperation, but the heroics here are matched to a mix of creepiness and comedy. Lovestruck army man Narraboth whose paeans to the beauty of his princess begin the drama has a stronger than usual sound from Alex McKissick, but this is another tenor role superbly sung. Some of the other smaller roles need to realise they don't have to force or be over-declamatory in the Bord Gáis venue - the sound carries well and the orchestra never drowns them out.

Sheil's magnificent musicians carry the expressiveness from moonstruck clarinet to cavernous contrabassoon and tuba, and while the conductor's burn is relatively slow, you feel the tension mounting in Strauss's magnificently paced thriller (is this his most amazing score?) Unlike several bewildering recent productions, this one doesn't dispense with the essentials: the moon, the dance, the head on a salver. Everything about the love-transfiguration gone wrong is disturbingly right: the play with the silver platter, the amount of blood transferred from severed head to Salome's now-scant clothing, above all Campbell Wallace's untiring switch between steely brilliance and aching tenderness for what might have been. There's even a suggestion that, despite Jokanaan's prophecy of her being stoned to death coming true, she follows him into the darkness, Wagnerian Liebestod accomplished.Final scene from SalomeIt's a total performance, in short, from another Irish diva following the three who did such a superlative job in Ravella's gorgeous, detailed take on Der Rosenkavalier when it arrived at Irish National Opera, and for that matter the electrifying performance of another Irish soprano and Salome-in-waiting Jennifer Davis as Janáček's Jenůfa at English National Opera (I feel fortunate to have seen both within three days). The good news is that this Salome has been filmed for imminent transmission on OperaVision. The company's track record remains unblemished, the mounting challenges fearlessly faced.

The transformation from curious innocent in a depraved world to a monster for whom we still feel some pity could not have been more fine tuned


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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