Over a hundred years after its première, Richard Strauss's opera Salome retains its ability to shock. The opera was adapted from Oscar Wilde's retelling of the biblical tale, in which Herod's daughter demands and receives the head of the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver charger. The details of the original tale are scanty, both in the bible and in Josephus: in Wilde's conceit, Salome starts as a young innocent and is then gripped by obsession. The shock value in the setting comes from the stark portrayal of a princess obsessed with a man in horribly physically degraded circumstances, to the point of cradling and kissing his severed head.

Angela Denoke as Salome (c) 2010 The Royal Opera/Clive Barda
Angela Denoke as Salome (c) 2010 The Royal Opera/Clive Barda

The real sensation, however, comes from the opera's score. Strauss was unusual in being a fully fledged symphonic composer who started writing opera relatively late in life. Salome, the first of his many operas to achieve an enduring place in the repertoire, was written when he was forty years old and extremely successful as a symphonist. You can hear it in the extreme sophistication of the orchestration, with extravagant brass and woodwind sections and great complexity in the string writing. But it's never simply a virtuoso piece: the clever pieces of instrumentation are always subservient to the story and never there simply for show.

At Covent Garden's production last night, conductor Hartmut Haenchen extracted every possible inch of drama and colour from the score, whether in the expansive string writing, the stentorian brass accompanying Jokanaan's prophecy, the skirl of woodwind surrounding the early entrance of Salome herself or the exoticism and drive of the celebrated Dance of the seven veils. At several points, the large orchestral forces in play threatened to overwhelm the singing: most of the singers in the smaller parts were difficult to hear at all, and although the voices in the principal roles were audible, the balance of voice and orchestra still wasn't right - which is a pity, since the singing itself was generally good. Johann Reuter sang Jokanaan with grit, authority and a slight tinge of prophetic derangement, Gerhard Siegel's Herod was light in tone but effective in portraying a weak, vain man, Irina Mishura suitably vacuous as the Tetrarch's wife Herodias. The quintet of squabbling Jews came across particularly well.

But when push comes to shove, Salome is a one-woman show: it rests or falls on the performance in the title role, which presents a fearsome challenge to any soprano. The role demands singing at heroic full throttle while looking and acting the part of a princess changing from frail teenager to dangerous, obsessive sex kitten. Angela Denoke made a very good fist of it. Her vocal quality was pure and true to the music, if lacking that last edge in Wagnerian power, and her looks were those of a silent movie starlet, if not quite a teenager. Most importantly, her acting was completely credible. I loved every line of the music and the full destructive horror of Salome's behaviour convinced me totally.

David McVicar's art deco staging and costumes worked well, with a clever split-screen conceit where the main action takes place in a sort of servant's hall below the main banqueting event high up on stage, kitchen and cold store visible. A small amount of the obligatory nudity spiced up the scene, though not to excess, Jokanaan was suitably shaggy-haired and grubby, and there was plenty of stage blood. If it all sounds like faint praise, it's that somehow, with the amount of vocal and orchestral pyrotechnics in this opera, the staging seems to me to matter less than it does in many other operas. They were certainly good enough in this one, and the Dance of the seven veils was particularly well handled with its idea of going through a series of doors reminiscent of Duke Bluebeard's Castle.

Salome is a relatively short opera, with a single act clocking in at well under two hours. It's not one for the faint-hearted, being an almost continuous assault on the senses, but as a study in obsession, it's a wonderful theatrical experience. This production may not be the most vocally accomplished one you will ever see, but it brings the material to vivid life in all its colours.