Atom Egoyan’s production of Richard Strauss’ Salome is styled for extreme contrasts. You could think of it as Springtime for Herod in Judea. While patrons spilling out of limos, taxis and Wheel-Trans were gathering on this magnolia blossom-filled May Day evening in the plaza outside the opera house’s glass façade, a parade hedged by bicycle cops was filing by. It flaunted floats carrying portraits of Karl Marx, with acrobats, dancers, jugglers and marching bands enthusiastically protesting AUSTERITY, demanding an END TO CAPITALISM, OIL SANDS, AND GMO’S. Inside the opera house minutes later, King Herod was offering his step-daughter Salome emeralds and half his kingdom if she would “dance” for him. Salome, encouraged by her mother Herodias, acceded, with the intention of getting to kiss the cold, dead lips of Jochanaan (John the Baptist). Jochanaan’s only desire was the salvation of everyone who believed in “the one who was coming to save the world”, and the damnation of anyone who didn’t believe. These extreme contrasts made for a brew that was as intoxicating as it was strong.

Herodias and Salome (Erika Sunnegårdh) © Michael Cooper
Herodias and Salome (Erika Sunnegårdh)
© Michael Cooper

I don’t usually like modernized settings of operas. I prefer them in their original period settings. I don’t usually buy the directorial argument that we need to dress traditional characters like us before we can identify with them, nor that the original libretto can be made more available with an assist from contemporary media tech effects. So, when Atom Egoyan writes that he needed to find a new “justification for Salome’s horrific [femme fatale] behaviour”, and that he found it in “the violence [he imagined] that Salome witnessed [during her abusive childhood]”, I just don’t buy it. But, an artist’s work trumps his theory. In this case Egoyan’s actual production is so well-made that I swallowed it whole and enjoyed it.

The steeply raked stage showing Jochanaan’s dungeon beneath it, the dimly but skilfully lit, dingy coloured minimalist set kept a tight focus on the characters. The costumes made the characters more vivid, individually or in groups: Salome and Jochanaan in flimsy white tunics, his filthy, hers bloodstained towards the end; Herod and Herodias, like a mob boss and his lady, in outrageous casuals. Various servitors and officials in business suits were colour-coded for function: drab for military, white for Judean officials, and the Nazarenes carrying black briefcases marked with a red fish. The staging gave the biblical drama a surreal twist: less Hollywood, more the haunted, dead, classical landscape of Giorgio de Chirico, whose best paintings were roughly contemporaneous with Strauss’ Salome. The entire ethos of this opera is so bizarre that one easily adapted to the new norm of video projections on the palace wall of Jochanaan’s oral cavity enunciating prophecies and curses. The central “Dance of the Seven Veils” is a video montage including the Herod family’s home-movies projected on a gigantic scrim. Egoyan’s way with the infamous dance works here because he avoids disappointing the audience with an enfeebled literal representation of naked dancing, and offers instead a symbolic representation of the weirdly perverted state of mind that is the subject of the whole opera.

Erika Sunnegårdh sang her exceptionally demanding lead role in a marvelously pure and clear voice. Her stage presence as a fragile, strong-willed but damaged girl, was completely convincing, and she made you feel the bitter kiss she placed on the lips of the dead head. Tenor Richard Margison was an aptly vulgar Herod, endowed with a commanding tenor tempered to suggest his addiction to luxury and perverted pleasures. The great mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz made the depravity of Herodias somehow familial. Martin Gantner’s rich baritone booming in video from dungeon, or better still in person from the trolley that he rolled around on, conveyed the grandiosity of his conviction. The supporting cast was impeccable. If there was a problem with the production, it came in the opening scenes when the orchestra, led by maestro Johannes Debus, overwhelmed the players, especially Salome, but that level problem passed, never to return. Strauss’ music unfolded throughout as a rich tapestry edged and overwrought with curious designs. That said, despite Strauss' beautiful music and Egoyan's pleasing production, the behaviours of the main characters left me overwhelmed with this question: “Who Were Those People?”