Richard Strauss: Salome
English National Opera, Martyn Brabbins, Adena Jacobs
The Coliseum, 3 October 2018
In a production that veered from My Little Pony, via Lolita, to the Texans Chainsaw Massacre, there were two clear winners: the music of Richard Strauss, given a superb reading by Martyn Brabbins and the Orchestra of English National Opera, and mezzo Allison Cook in her strangely compelling and insightful interpretation of the complex role of Salome – a role and ENO debut. Usually depicted as the archetypical seductive femme fatale, for most of this production, directed by Adena Jacobs in an ENO debut, she seemed far more like a confused, hormone-ridden teenage girl, becoming increasingly fragile, delicate, and in need of protection. Perhaps I was viewing it through the mind of a father, rather than a voyeur, but it was an incredibly powerful image. Her first appearance was as a black-clad, demanding and confident long-haired princess arguing to see the imprisoned Jokanaan. As events unfolded, she mutated into a slight and vulnerable bare-breasted child-woman in minuscule schoolgirl gym knickers and with makeup smeared all over her face.
The eventual loss of her blonde-locks wig into a trauma-crop completed the transformation, a reminder that Strauss’s wanted Salome to have the body of a 16-year-old, albeit with the voice of Isolde which, thankfully, Allison Cook avoided. Her voice, mezzo, rather than the usual soprano, was brilliantly balanced by Martyn Brabbins and the orchestra and reinforced the conflicted vulnerability of the child Salome. Vocally, it is a very challenging role, but was impressively dealt with. If anything was to be projected onto the backcloth, it should have been the face of Allison Cook, her expressions as the surrealistic world of the adults around her unfolded only otherwise clearly visible through opera glasses.
The uncomfortably gruesome seduction attempts of her grotesque stepfather Herod, clad in a bizarre outfit of a spangly top, boxer shorts and a shorty Father Christmas jacket, contrasting with Salome’s own fanciful lustings after Jokanaan, clearly portrayed as total fantasy, not least by the fact that she didn’t once actually look at him, despite a lengthy scene where she was in the same prison, slumped under what looked like a giant sun-lamp. Had she glanced over, she would have found her fantasy lover clad in sloppy underwear and bright red stilettos and encased within a weird device that, in theory, projected his mouth onto the back of the stage, although the lighting and syncing suggested that it wasn’t live. I’ve no idea what that was all about, or indeed several other aspects of the surrealistically ‘feminine’ staging by director Adena Jacobs, not least the enormous decapitated Little Pony that was strung up on stage and eviscerated, revealing flowers for guts.
Michael Colvin sang the role of certifiably crazy Herod, with Susan Bickley as a restrained Herodias. David Soar sang Jokanaan, poorly amplified until the prison scene, encumbered by the silly scaffolding attached to his head. Strauss suggested that the famous Dance of the Seven Veils should be ‘thoroughly decent as if it were done on a prayer mat’. In this case, the dancers were a quartet of buxom cheer-leaders cavorting awkwardly while the gawky Salome brandished a baseball bat and struck vaguely provocative poses that only the saddest desirer of awkward teenagers would find erotic.
The conclusion summed up the ultimate vulnerability of the teenage Salome, as she stood alone front-stage, the head of Jokanaan in a white plastic bag (or was it?). Finally, her mother clutches her as she puts a pistol to her mouth, the ultimate teenage self-harming child.
Production photos: Catherine Ashmore/ENO