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  • Chris O'Rourke

Salome




Salome. Image by Patricio Cassinoni

****

Rampant with misogyny, Richard Strauss’s Salome, 1905, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, presents challenges for modern productions. Its condemnation of desire, especially female desire and agency as dictated by Biblical values plays out like a Victorian sermon. Strauss’s reimagining of John the Baptist's death at the hands of a sexualised young woman placing all the blame on the woman scorned by the saint’s rebuffs. Under Bruno Ravella’s heavy handed direction, Salome skirts around serious engagement with the issues it raises. Not so much grounding sexual desire as burying it, serving up an outdated morality tale with an apology of believable context. Playing dated opposites against a non-existent middle, what should have been an emotive rollercoaster ride often cruises like a pedestrian paddleboat, making for a striking contrast with Strauss’s vibrant score. Redeemed by soprano Sinéad Campbell Wallace in the title role who soars above it all, breaking free of the puritanical chains that would bind her.

Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Salome. Image by Patricio Cassinoni

Visually, Leslie Travers’s cement grey set and contemporary costumes are all rather confusing. Talk of a cistern and its association with water, baptism and purity falling claustrophobically flat. Instead, opening with a star studded sky and a military chorus dressed like Starship Troopers an intergalactic space station springs to mind. Its wall a grey bulkhead housing a ship’s door reinforcing the spaceship motif. Which Salome enters like an innocent, impetuous ingenue looking to escape the leering of her lusty stepfather. Tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner’s tuxedoed Herodes evoking less a terrifying Tetrarch so much as a bumbling, lascivious Maitre’D, with mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm’s Herodias his equally cartoonish wife. Tenor Alex McKissick’s Narraboth, the Captain of the Guard, also serves up a cartoon sketch, executing the most ridiculous death scene surpassed only by the discovery of the body which requires everyone to pretend they don’t see it. Revealing Travers’s set as a construction of ideas divorced from the demands of the libretto, which it frequently comes into conflict with. Issues Ravella either curiously ignores or openly endorses, neither inspiring confidence.

Tómas Tómasson and Sinéad Campbell Wallace in Salome. Image by Patricio Cassinoni


If Salome is frequently played as hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, here Salome is a stubborn, self-willed temptress doomed for pursuing what is forbidden her by men. Beginning with her childlike curiosity, which turns to lust for prisoner Jochanaan, better known as John the Baptist. A centrepiece tree in a patch of overgrown grass suggestive of the Tree of Life hammers home the Biblical references. An oversized, blood stained bonsai set against walls of soul suffocating grey later raised to reveal a pool of water. The visual hinting at an underworld, looking like a pyrrhic extravagance promoting another Eden reference. Like the proverbial apple later offered by a snake. Meanwhile the condemning prophet, exuding the charm and warmth of a razor blade, preaches Christian moral consequences. Allowing Tómas Tómasson’s insufferable  Jochanaan provide the only credible pushback to Campbell Wallace’s vivaciously immature Salome.

Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Salome. Image by Patricio Cassinoni


Like an angel descended, or a human adrift in a cartoon world, Campbell Wallace’s Salome is out of this world, refusing salacious clichés by charting a young girl’s growth to womanhood in a male sexualised world. The predatory circling of Jochanaan evoking less a siren so much as a petulant child whose childish attempts at seduction give her much to think about when they fail. Ravella’s genius revealed in having Campbell Wallace simply sit quietly onstage ruminating as the world flusters about her, her presence and stillness conjuring far more than many working twice as hard. No Dance of the Seven Veils needed, just the one veil that exists between childhood and womanhood in the form of a yellow dress. Liz Roche’s sensitively sinuous choreography allowing Salome transform before your eyes. Ciarán Bagnall’s superb lights crafting snaking shadows as Salome sheds her girlish skin for a woman’s body. The final, uneasy image with its suggestions of necrophilia transformed into a bite of the forbidden fruit followed by the cruel, blood stained awakening. Campbell Wallace’s understated realisation hauntingly powerful, before the inevitable end.

Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Salome. Image by Patricio Cassinoni


If Herodes and Salome lie broken at the end having sated their respective desires, it's not comparisons with the self-righteous Jochanaan that reveals the opera’s subtext. It's the fate that awaits them both as alleged sinners. With neither likely to qualify for salvation, one ends up rather miffed but still in power, the other cursed and condemned to die. Standard, dull, Christian fundamentalist preaching, which Campbell Wallace refuses to be chained by in a telling that avoids addressing the issues and desires Salome raises. Where emotional impact is dependent on music and singing to capture what’s left unsaid. Under Fergus Shiel’s conducting Irish National Opera Orchestra squeeze every vibrant drop from Strauss’s rich score, and a cast, singing in German, prove superlative across the board. But it would be nothing without Campbell Wallace, who highlights and forgives a multitude of sins. This may not be a Salome for all time, or even for these times, but Campbell Wallace could well be Salome every time. Her singing sensational, her presence commanding, her performance enlivened by a detailed rigour astonishing to behold. What Campbell Wallace reveals just the tip of the iceberg. Being less a star on the rise so much as a superstar in the making. Others might show you the whole of the moon. With Salome, Campbell Wallace shows she can unveil galaxies.


Salome, by Richard Strauss, libretto by the composer based on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of the French original of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, presented by Irish National Opera, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until March 16.


For more information visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

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