There seems to be a little bit of a theme with the last few productions at Opera Australia. Soprano goes a bit crazy, man gets killed, soprano sings a glorious final aria covered in his blood.
It goes without saying that Salome isn’t exactly the feel-good hit of the opera season. It’s one of the darkest, creepiest and most subversive performances Opera Australia has ever mounted. It’s a little bit sick, a little bit sexy and absolutely brilliant. The opera in its original incarnation was an extremely provocative work. Based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, both the play and the opera were censored and banned in various countries throughout the world at the beginning of the 20th Century. It’s no wonder it’s been so controversial with religious themes, necrophilia and a touch of incest. Gale Edwards has taken on the challenge of directing one of the most difficult works in the operatic repertoire and has made a bold statement with a full-blooded and intensely atmospheric production where brutality meets beauty.
Playing both the beauty and the beast at the centre of the piece is Cheryl Barker, who excels as the sensual and dangerous Salome. Barker sings with great strength, especially in her middle and lower registers where she soars over the large orchestra. But what makes her Salome a must see is the way she embraces the character’s creepier, sadistic side. The journey of her character from scorned and abused young woman to monster is magnificent.
Edwards has ingeniously drawn richly textured performances from a cast of Opera Australia’s best singers. John Pickering is a perfectly lustful and hedonistic Herod. Jacqueline Dark is an imposing Herodias, with bucketfuls of attitude, spite and venom spitting from her tongue. These two are such technically secure singers, they’re able to truly put character first, making for a thrilling theatrical experience.
[pull_left] I can’t be sure if this is the first time an Opera Australia production has featured a pole-dancing dominatrix, but I kind of hope it won’t be the last.[/pull_left]
The true moment of genius in this production comes with the iconic Dance of the Seven Veils. Featuring some stunning choreography by Kelley Abbey in her opera debut, the always controversial dance has been reimagined with seven iconic images of the way women are perceived sexually – everything from a French maid to Marilyn Monroe. I can’t be sure if this is the first time an Opera Australia production has featured a pole-dancing dominatrix, but I kind of hope it won’t be the last.
This performance is an achievement for the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, featuring a vast array of percussion and obscure instruments like the heckelphone (essentially an oboe, pitched an octave lower). They get the best out of Strauss’s eclectic, stirring score with Johannes Fritzsch conducting.
Salome is obviously a dark piece and this production goes head-on into the opera’s sexuality and gore, complete with a fairly disturbing love scene between Salome and a severed head. In Edwards’ hands, this goes from a simple femme fatale biblical story to a revelatory feminist statement. Edwards clearly wanted to explore the deeper attitudes in the work, bubbling below the surface, and the way Salome is scorned and thrown aside by men. Sure it’s an extravagant and thrilling piece, full of life, death, violence and blood but there’s a message in this production that needs to be heard in this day and age.