Lust, decadence, indecency, exploitation: these are the riveting themes of Richard Strauss’ meaty opera Salome, which the composer crafted after Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play, and was first performed in Dresden in 1905. Then as now, his one-act opera is a savage exposure of emotional extremes, from passionate, unrequited yearning to hopeless rejection, and those, usually, in settings from Herod’s bright palace to the depths of a prisoner’s dungeon.

Michaela Schuster (Herodias), Elena Stikhina (Salome) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herodes)
© Paul Leclaire

Hartmut Meyer’s utterly spectacular set for Zurich Opera, however, is a breathtaking exception, consisting of four moveable constructionist forms: an oversized, brightly-lit, moon-like wedge above the stage; then, a slanted arc downstage-centre, where much of the action takes place; third, a segmented drawbridge that leads to offstage heights, and finally, a stunning sculptural disc that rides left and right along the back wall to punctuate the action. Its stark lines and compelling lighting (by the ingenious Franck Evin) make a stunning piece of Modernist sculpture. Andreas Homoki’s beautifully-paced, sensible direction was highly compelling.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herodes) and Elena Stikhina (Salome)
© Paul Leclaire

The musical performances were no less spectacular. As the lascivious Herod, who lusts after his stepdaughter Salome, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke carried the mainstay of lewdness and corruption in the first of the four scenes. His silk pyjamas and ill-fitting ginger wig added even more offence to his character’s lack of morals. Michaela Schuster played his sneaky and devious queen, Herodias, a figure decked head-to-toe in precious red silks, who was herself party to lasciviousness, too, should temptation come her way. By contrast, at least at first, Elena Stikhina’s Salome seems an innocent until she evolves as the fully sensuous, decadent woman whose violent attributes give the plot its gruesome twist. If she will “dance” for Herod, he assures her, she can have from him whatever her heart desires. 

The Dance of the Seven Veils, which she consents to perform, has an unusual twist in this production: each of seven tulle skirts is successively peeled away from her body to Strauss’ sinuous score. That Salome also stepped out of her skivvies at her dance’s end added even more to the sensation of debauchery. When asked by her oily stepfather what she wanted in return for the dance, it was neither his jewels nor other assets; it was the head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) she wanted, and that, simply because he’d refused her.

Kostas Smoriginas (Jochanaan) and Elena Stikhina (Salome)
© Paul Leclaire

Salome’s music oscillates between compassionate innocence and bestial ferocity, but in this ruthlessly demanding role, Stikhina sustained the tension well. She sang to perfection what many consider the most impossible of vocal roles. Other fine performances included those by the Swiss tenor Mauro Peter as the young captain, Narraboth, the love-smitten guard who succumbs to Salome’s insistence on visiting the confined prisoner, and Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas as the ill-fated, barefooted, shirtless Jochanaan, who Herod has confined to the dungeon. Presented up from the depths almost like an innocent Christ in an Armani suit, he was the picture of sobriety and conscience. Nonetheless, in a plot twist, he does have the pleasure of a brief copulation with Salome before his head is lopped off. In the final scene, Salome sings to his severed head and, citing an indeterminable future, exits stage right, her fate, at least in this production, uncertain. Under Australian conductor Simone Young, the Philharmonia Zürich mastered, and seemed even to relish, the challenges of Strauss’ score.

Elena Stikhina (Salome)
© Paul Leclaire

Equally exciting was that on the plaza that faces the opera house, hundreds of spectators had been able to enjoy the performance on an enormous outdoor screen (also streamed worldwide). At the end, after the cast had taken multiple curtain calls on the stage itself, they also appeared on the terrace above the house entrance. No surprise at their reception: the huge outdoor crowd, too, simply roared their applause.