Strauss’ Salome was a problem for its first censors, who saw it as decadent, irreligious, even repellent. They were right on each count. But performed as it was at this fourth revival of Sir David McVicar’s 2008 Royal Opera House production, it is also a wonder of the operatic world. Es Devlin provides an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ setting, with Herod’s court feasting at the top of the set, a large staircase leading down to a bleak bunker, without windows or furniture, just the lid of the cistern whence Jochanaan calls out the sins of those above.

Malin Byström (Salome)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The only change of scene occurs in the Dance of the Seven Veils, which has no striptease and little dancing. Instead we see a moving procession of darkened rooms through which Salome passes. Each space contains a symbol of a life led or imagined; a child’s soft toy, a mirror, a wedding dress – from nursery to nuptials, a normality she will never know. For Herod too is in each scene, with hints that the sources of Salome’s instability already lie deep in her short life, making her a more poignant character than usual.

Salome
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The cast is a strong one. John Daszak as Herod sings and acts well in a vocally ungrateful role which switches between testy Tetrarch, irritable husband and transgressive stepfather. Katarina Dalayman’s fine mezzo served well an Herodias who drinks to cope with the prophet’s accusations of incest, the bibulous blocking out the biblical as she staggered slightly in her glamorous gown. Narraboth was taken by Thomas Atkins with ardent tone and good presence as the handsome young Syrian. The opera overflows with small roles, and the First Nazarene rarely merits a name check, but he it is who in effect brings the Messiah on to the stage with his resonant reporting of rumoured miracles. Certainly bass James Platt’s fine singing was acknowledged at his curtain call. The Jochanaan of Jordan Shanahan was also impressively sung, once let out of that cistern which muffled him too much. His contemptuous “Züruck Tochter Babylons” and his vehement cursing of Salome had great force, but he never forced his tone.

John Daszak (Herodes) and Malin Byström (Salome)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

But the evening belonged to Malin Byström, a fine Salome here in 2018, and now probably unsurpassed in the role, vocally and histrionically. “A sixteen year old with the voice of Isolde,” was Strauss’s description of the requirements, and this was as thrilling an account of the role as the house has heard in a while, to judge by the sustained roar Byström received at her solo curtain call. Her acting was convincing too, not least in her petulant, increasingly insistent “Gib mir den Kopf des Jochanaan”. When rejoicing in kissing the prophet’s decapitated head, wondering insanely if she has thus tasted love, she sang magnificently. Her accuracy and gleaming tone in these final passages was undiminished even when combatting the orchestral tumult.

Jordan Shanahan (Jochanaan) and Malin Byström (Salome)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was on imposing form, and so too was Alexander Soddy, a British conductor making his house debut, having conducted almost everywhere else. In such passages as the long orchestral interlude after Jochanaan’s curse, with its complex kaleidoscope of motives, Soddy even recalled the composer’s advice to “conduct Salome and Elektra as if they are fairy music by Mendelssohn”. There was authority too in the big climaxes, rubato well-judged to time their arrival for maximum impact. His return to Covent Garden should not be too long delayed.

Simon Wilding (Soldier), John Daszak (Herodes) and Katarina Dalayman (Herodias)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Hear this Salome and this Salome if you possibly can. I shall now put this lurid masterpiece aside for a while, if it will let me go. 

*****