Hanna Schwarz as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome. Photo: Michael Cooper
By James Karas
For many of us the Dance of the Seven Veils evokes the image of the gorgeous Rita Hayworth as Salome undulating before Charles Laughton as Herod. That image may be forever removed from your subconscious if you see (and you should) Atom Egoyan’s interpretation of Salome with the Canadian Opera Company.
Egoyan manages to produce an entirely new work while staying faithful to Richard Strauss’s setting of Oscar Wilde’s play. The Biblical story as adapted by Wilde is that Salome is the stepdaughter of Herod. He is married to Herodias, his brother’s wife and Salome’s mother.
John the Baptist, a zealous prophet, is under arrest for fulminating against the sinful life of Herod and Herodias. Herod is attracted to Salome; Salome is attracted to John the Baptist; John the Baptist will have nothing to do with her. Salome performs her famous dance and asks for the Baptist’s head on a platter as her reward.
That is the barebones of the opera’s plot. Enter Egoyan. When Salome is about to start her strip tease of a dance, we see on a projected video a smiling, little girl on a swing. As the dramatic music of Salome’s dance develops, we see images of the little girl as a young woman and men enter the picture. Subtly, beautifully, disturbingly we realize that Salome is an abused child.
Now her attraction to the horrible-looking prophet makes more sense. Her lecherous stepfather and probably others abused her and the Baptist is perhaps the only man who has not. She does not take revenge on John – she makes love to him as she kisses the lips and tastes the blood of the man’s severed head.
In the end, she is executed by Herod himself and not by the soldiers as indicated in the libretto.
The most impressive performance of the evening was given by soprano Erika Sunnegärdh in the title role. She is physically lithe with a big, dramatic and supple voice. This Salome is not a sexual magnate out for revenge but a woman wronged and in love and Sunnegärdh gives a signature performance.
Baritone Martin Gantner was a disappointing Jochanaan (John the Baptist). His voice never achieved the power and intensity required of the passionate moralist, and the orchestra frequently drowned him out.
Tenor Richard Margison made a splendid Herod. This ruler of Judea was a classic dictator: a bit demented, somewhat unstable and thoroughly egotistical. Margison’s big voice stood him in good stead and his Herod was done superbly.
Mezzo-soprano Hannah Schwarz, with orange hair combed in a bun on top of her head, wearing an orange gown, made a good Herodias vocally and in appearance.
The set by designer Derek McLane resembles a walled yard with a swing in the centre. The “cistern” of the libretto where John the Baptist is held is under the stage and he is brought out on a cart. However, there is a hole on the stage through which he can be seen by the other characters. The only other props are a couple of chairs brought out during the performance.
Egoyan relies partly on video projections to set the tone of the opera. Aside from the Dance of the Seven Veils, we get glimpses of the party inside the palace as well as a swimming pool and images of Salome almost naked. She leaves the party and comes out of the pool and on stage wearing a while robe and swimsuit for her scenes before the famous Dance.
Captain Narraboth (well done by Nathaniel Peake) wears a suit while others wear robes. John the Baptist, hair disheveled, looks simply wild. The impression is that of a futuristic sci-fi setting rather than anything recognizable.
Salome is as much an orchestral work as it is an operatic composition and Strauss’s marvelous score makes high demands on the orchestra. The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus gave us what amounts to a full concert. Listening to them alone is worth the price of admission.
This is an original, thought-provoking and exciting production. A great night at the opera.____
Salome by Richard Strauss opened on April 21 and will be performed eight times until May 22, 2013 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca