BRITISH SOPRANO: Allison Oakes, gives an outstanding performance in a demanding role.
BRITISH SOPRANO: Allison Oakes, gives an outstanding performance in a demanding role.

Fiona Chisholm reviews Salome opera

By Fiona Chisholm Time of article published Mar 16, 2016

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CAPE TOWN OPERA’S SALOME, by Richard Strauss after Oscar Wilde, with Allison Oakes, Allan Glassman, Richard Paul Fink, Violina Anguelov and Lukhanyo Moyake. Directed by Matthew Wild. Design Conor Murphy, costumes Michael Mitchell and lighting Kobus Rossouw. The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gérard Korsten. At Artscape. FIONA CHISHOLM reviews

IN addition to the outraged reviews that Salome aroused after its 1905 premiere, the cartoonists had a field day. One featured the teenage princess who, after sensuously performing the Dance of the Seven Veils for her lecherous stepfather Herod, turned to John the Baptist saying: “Wait and see John, they’re going to cut your head off.” He replied: “That’s not as bad as being made into an opera by Strauss….”

Well I, for one, am glad that Strauss did. Also that CTO gave director Matthew Wild his head to take the “worst bunch of self-absorbed characters that he had ever assembled into one opera” and find world-class singers to perform these roles on Conor Murphy’s awe-inspiring back-of-the-castle setting.

All to give us the chance to hear this full-blooded historical drama accompanied by more orchestral players than has ever been squeezed into the pit.

This gruesome story is not fiction. Or even science fiction. Disciples Matthew and Mark referred to the unnamed dancing daughter of Herodias as being behind the prophet’s beheading.

Strauss’s opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s play but the composer omitted important family history throwing light on Salome’s inhuman behaviour. Helpfully the opera opens with a spoken scene in German from Wilde’s French text, enacting how 10 years earlier Salome had witnessed the murder of her father so her adulterous mother Herodias could marry her husband’s brother Herod Antipas.

This unhappy scenario, familiar from Hamlet, lies behind Matthew Wild’s motivation to update the opera as a “psychosexual case study of a severely dysfunctional royal family, unable to find absolution for past sins”.

The Bible blames Herodias for encouraging Salome to urge Herod to give her John’s head on a silver platter because the prophet disapproved of her marriage to Herod. On Artscape’s vast stage another version is dramatically and cruelly enacted. Out of pique for the prophet’s refusal to let her kiss his mouth, Salome will stop at nothing until she does.

I found this a ghastly scene and kept my head down, but it left me full of admiration for the strength of character and vocal power of soprano Allison Oakes as she lavished love, lust and matchless high notes on the bloodied head of the prophet.

Strauss envisaged a “16 year-old Isolde” for this taxing role and that Oakes is not. She moved nimbly and vocally carried off the demands of switching from bestial ferocity to girlish compassion, and yet also produced an engaging impishness when she agreed finally to dance for Herod in her own inimitable way.

This is one of the loveliest scenes. The Seven Veils are six young masked dancers who join her in a sexy routine with more tease than strip and it sends Allan Glassman’s Herod into spasms of delight. Hat’s off, or rather panties off, to Kristin Wilson’s nimble and naughty choreography performed to unexpectedly frivolous music.

As Herod, tenor Glassman’s contribution was huge. Initially in his Christmas cracker crown and floral suit he appeared to be the typical party inebriate. However his vocal assurance and depth of character grew as he awoke to the consequences of promising Salome anything if she danced for him. His fear and distress seemed to come from his heart and soul.

It was a surprise to have two actors as John, or Jochanaan as he is called. One was the limp and silent body of bearded Richard Lothian. The other the Grammy-award winning dramatic baritone and commanding presence of Richard Paul Fink. Perhaps it was intended to separate the body from the spirit of the prophet, but it was confusing and distracted from the importance of the real Jochanaan’s messages. My other problem was watching that outstanding dramatic actress and mezzo Violina Anguelov playing Herodias as an over-the-top boozy, blonde bimbo. It was a waste of her talents. She would have proved far more effective in the love triangle displaying that core of heartlessness of her brilliant Carmen some years ago.

The other major role player was Gérard Korsten conducting the 75-strong Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra in an outlandishly difficult score in which the lyrical vocal melodies on stage bore little resemblance to the rich and often loud chromatic and contrapuntal foundation of the orchestra.

All the lesser roles from tenor Lukhanyo Moyake as the unfortunate guard Narraboth, mezzo Jacobi de Villiers as the page with the silver tray, various soldiers, Jews and the burly executioner, made their contribution to a dramatic night at the opera which could have a sequel. As Herod kills both Salome’s parents it leaves him open to marry his step-daughter Salome and continue the cycle of this seriously dysfunctional royal family! Any composer out there willing to have a go?

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