Monday, October 01, 2018

"Salome, dear, not in the fridge"

Allison Cook as Salome, with placcy bag
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

As I slunk homewards from ENO's opening night, a friend on Twitter kindly sent me the above headline. It's from an anthology of winning entries to competitions in The New Statesman, edited by Arthur Marshall, and cheered me up somewhat.

Not that ENO's Salome would have needed to worry, because there wasn't much evidence of a severed head at all: just a placcy bag that for all we know might have contained a large cauliflower. One's cynical side considers it's probably cheaper than constructing a replica head of Jokanaan.

I love good reinterpretations of operas. Like science fiction or magical realism (in which I've been learning a thing or two recently), they need to create consistent worlds, to make sense within those worlds and, if stretching disbelief, make us believe one big thing by getting the small things right. The denouement has to be stunning, too, to make everyone feel they have suspended that disbelief for a good reason.

Under the circumstances, a radical feminist interpretation of Strauss's Salome should be eminently possible, especially with such a fine actress as Allison Cook in the title role. The story contains plenty of potential: a young woman, her sexuality awakened, frustrated, abused and finally twisted beyond redemption, is destroyed by men's attitudes to her - brutal religious fundamentalism on one hand and the incestuous lust of her stepfather on the other.

But if that was what was going on in Adena Jacobs' production, it didn't quite work. Herod is an almost pantomime Father Christmas - red and white cape over a gold vest and bare legs - bringing Salome jewels wrapped in big bright parcels with bows on. Jokanaan is first revealed wearing pink stilettos. There's a lot of pink, à la Anna Nicole, but including a decapitated pink horse, suspended upside-down spilling entrails that turn out to be pink and purple flowers. There's a lot of blood around, meanwhile, but it's pink too. In the midst of this, Salome is good at yoga, but leaves the heavy-duty moves to four lookalikes, also clad in black bikini bottoms and blonde wigs, who help out with the Dance of the Seven Veils. ("Twerking," my companion mused. "So 2013.") And there's a lot of sexuality, whether the self-pleasuring of the lookalikes, or what happens when the close-up live film projection of Jokanaan's mouth is turned on its side and begins to resemble something else, with teeth.

Some might object to all of this on principle; conversely, a lot of people seemed to enjoy it very much. I have no problem with the components (with the exception of the dead horse, which reminds me of Graham Vick's Glyndebourne Don Giovanni from last century and therefore seems derivative, and besides, I can't bear it when bad things happen to animals). But I'd like to know whether it really adds up to more than the sum of its, um, parts. I found no particular revelations within it and three days later I'm still musing over exactly what insights we were supposed to gain.

Strauss keeps right on being Strauss and sometimes all one could do was listen, because Martyn Brabbins was working such high-octane intensity with the ENO Orchestra that they swept all before them. The magical, lustrous scoring shone out, the pacing magnificently managed. David Soar's charismatic Jokanaan had his moments, but at other times the range sounded too high for him; Cook's Salome, too, offered a lower voice than suits the role's stratospheres. Supporting roles were all excellently sung. Michael Colvin as Herod gave a fine performance despite the Santa Claus coat, and Susan Bickley's Herodias - dignified and still at the centre of the whole - was perhaps the best of all the many ideas.

Go and see it for yourself, if you can. It's certainly a memorable evening.