Salome at the COC

Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome and Nathaniel Peake as Narraboth. Photo: Michael Cooper

Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome and Nathaniel Peake as Narraboth. Photo: Michael Cooper

A hundred and eight years ago Richard Strauss’s Salome was premiered in Dresden followed by 38 curtain bows. Shortly thereafter it was staged in fifty other theatres across Europe. At the Austrian première in Graz 1906, in the audience were Alban Berg, Giacomo Puccini and Gustav Mahler. The libretto is based on an Oscar Wilde play which inspired Strauss to write this opera. It is a biblical story about the death of John the Baptist in the captivity of Herod, the Roman governor of Judea.

A renowned Canadian film director, Atom Egoyan, directed the Richard Strauss’s Salome which was performed this season at the COC. In this biblical story of degenerate mores, princess Salome attempts to seduce Jochanaan, John the Baptist, who is held in the captivity of her stepfather Herod. Salome seduces the guard to bring the prisoner Jochanaan. She tries to seduce Jochanaan to kiss her. Failing to arouse any interest from the imprisoned prophet, the princess goes back to the banquet in Herod’s garden and agrees to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils for her lustful stepfather, on condition that he fulfill her wish.  She demands the severed head of Jochanaan to be delivered to her on a silver platter. Herod, although disgusted over such an idea, cannot retract on his promise. Seeing Salome fondling the severed head, Herod, in profound disgust, shrieks and declares her mad and fit for Sodom and Gomorrah, summoning the guards to kill Salome. The guards follow the order.

Herod, his wife and Salome abide in their quarters dressed in casual bathrobes.  A lack of splendour and signs of neglect in the bare garden of Herod, combined with the grey and green lighting, hint at the decay and disorder that must accompany such abominable deeds. Combining video projections and a theatre of shadows with the classical stage set, the story unfolds with coherence, but remains within the realm of the conventional. Yet the conventional cannot be at par with this shocking story and dramatic extremes of music delivered by the superb orchestra under conductor Johanes Debus.

In a Met production of Salome with Karita Matilla in the title role, her drunken dance delivers the true degenerate madness that carries the weight of this whole unhinged story. This production is short of this anchoring point. It is not enough that Herod is attending his garden party dressed in a wife-beater and pajamas under his orange bathrobe.  His lust and titillation are meek and pale.  For this magnitude of the abominable, the set and costumes appear as too conventional. The most revolting point in this opera should not be a princess kissing the severed head on the platter, but something that inevitably leads to it. 

Dance of the Seven Veils scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013. Photo: Michael Cooper

Dance of the Seven Veils scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013. Photo: Michael Cooper

Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnagårdh as Salome has more than the required strength in her upper register for this role. Ms. Sunnagårdh delivered a superb performance. Richard Maragison as Herod was impressive in delivering transition from the anesthetized hedonistic boredom towards the agonizing despair of decision making in commanding the execution of the stepdaughter he adores. Martin Gantner, although vocally equal to the task, sang the role of John the Baptist with a stamina and resoluteness more suitable for a guerrilla-fighter than a prophet, having no compassion or forgiveness for the fallen woman.

Despite all these objections, the performance is a success, most notably for the singers and the orchestra.

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