Salome (1905) by Richard Strauss, libretto Hedwig Lachmann after the play by Oscar Wilde. Director Atom Egoyan, conductor Johannes Debus. The COC, Houston Grand Opera and Vancouver Opera co-production. The COC revival seen on April 27, 2013. INFO
Not exactly on the side of its women, this production of Salome by Atom Egoyan. Many elements add rich layers of meaning to the libretto, but there are others that are just facile. You’d expect more sophisticated gender politics from the director of the excellent Cruel and Tender and Felicia’s Journey, but we’re out of luck this time.
The three main female characters have each been given much harsher fate than the libretto enjoins. Herodias (Hanna Schwarz) is here directly involved in the killing of Jochanaan, likely even killed him herself: Egoyan has her follow the executioner to the prisoner’s cell, sword in hand, and bring the head out triumphantly to hand it to Salome herself. The prophet has been calling her a whore in his regular broadcasts from the cell from day one, and she’s only too eager to shut him up.
The Page is here made into a skirt role – something that many directors do these days, because obviously we can’t have any gay male desire on stage. Fine. So the Page is a woman who desires Narraboth (Nathaniel Peake). In this case, the role happens to be sung by the most distinctive voice in the entire production, mezzo Maya Lahyani. She made the absolute best of this small and ungrateful role. From the first line sung, the colour and the strength of the voice stand out. Her character is equally lively and strong, but then Egoyan decides to give it the task of mimicking oral sex with Narraboth, for reasons unclear. This is how it comes about: while Salome is expressing her desire for Jochanaan, Narraboth is enacting his desire for Salome by making out with the Page. This actually works fine, their making out is desperate and sensuous and a clash of eroticisms, until this very last choreography where the images from commercial straight pornography take over and the Page goes down on the soldier. Unnecessary.
And Salome herself… Much has been written about the 2002 version of this production and whether Egoyan brutalized Salome too much in it and reduced all her sensuous powers by turning the dance scene into the flashback to the sexual abuse that she suffered or still does at the hand of Herod’s and his soldiers. Egoyan was in search of a psychological explanation of Salome’s demand for Jochanaan’s death and offered this. It’s one way to go about it, I suppose, but it leaves me dreaming of a production of Salome that would show the brutality of patriarchy over its women without employing some of the tropes of the sexploitation movies. (Salome is also in her underwear the entire production, which shows her fragility but also feeds the lurid to the male gaze that demands it. One can actually go without the other.)
So what was good in the production? The general concept: we’re in a sort of a clinic/spa for the well-off, and most of the action takes place in the living room of Herod and Herodias. Herod is a drug addict – and with this, a lot of his behaviour and the musical mood shifts and the winds that nobody hears but him all make sense. The quarreling Jewish theologians are bald-headed and dressed in clinical whites, so they easily turn to doctors at the clinic who in one scene even administer Herod’s drugs in order to calm him down. They are also, in another scene, Herod’s henchmen who are after Salome. Egoyan uses video to excellent effects, too (unsurprisingly). The images of a female body in mud and earth – perhaps in the spa mud, or the real mud, or the primal mud and water of creation, or all of these at different times, these are all possible – are particularly significant. The video of Jochanaan’s mouth prophesying is also used to great effect.
The COC orchestra, conducted by Johannes Debus, teased out with precision and passion the score that moves from lyricism to aggressive dissonance, from the big band sound to the chamber pieces and solos and back. Erika Sunnegårdh is a fine Salome, well-acted and sung, though the voice is not quite big as some occasions in Salome require and was sometimes difficult to hear over the orchestra. Richard Margison’s excellent acting really brought this weirdo Herod to life, and Martin Gantner’s excellent singing did not – because it never happens, such is the libretto – bring to life the one-note character of Jochanaan, the Patriarchal Damning Machine.
It’s an interesting production that will make you think about its heights and regret its missed opportunities long after you’ve seen it.
Top (Narraboth and the Page) and bottom photo (Salome) by Michael Cooper. Middle photo (Herod, Herodias, Jewish theologians, Jochanaan’s disembodied mouth) by Chris Hutcheson. All from the 2013 COC production of Salome.