The family of Salome in Richard Strauss’ opera surely has to be amongst the most dysfunctional in all of opera. In director Sofia Jupither’s operatic directing debut, the dysfunctionality is put front and centre with at times devastating results.

© Carl Thorborg
© Carl Thorborg

Sofia Jupither’s production places Salome in an arid, almost moon-like desert landscape. In this landscape stands the house of Herod, a modern house of steel and glass, filled to the brim with drapes, antique paintings, and partying guests. It stands almost like an oasis of luxury in the middle of the desert. This house, a terrarium of sorts, isolates its residents from the barren world that surrounds them. More than once did my thoughts drift to Middle Eastern dictators in their desert palaces. The moon, perhaps the most central image in the opera, descends inexorably towards the ground – a kind of celestial executioner’s blade.

In this production, Salome is the product of a loveless upbringing. Her stepfather Herod seems to think of her as little else than an object for his (and others’) sexual desire, and her mother Herodias regards her as a mere pawn in her quest for power. Salome has everything she could possibly wish for except someone who actually loves her. When Jochanaan then appears, she finally sees an opportunity for love, and she does not care what she has to do in order for that to happen. She blindly accepts his beliefs only to be rejected. Her obsession is so all-encompassing that she doesn’t even notice that Narraboth kills himself right next to her.

The “Dance of the Seven Veils” was by far the most disturbing moment in this production. It was presented as more of a ritual than a dance, with Salome in warpaint dancing to seduce Herod. At the same time, the guests at the party started making increasingly lewd advances towards her, which in the end became little more than non-explicit, but also deeply troubling, stylized depictions of rape. The alternating between Salome’s clumsy, ever more furious attempts to finish her dance and the male guests interrupting in order to satisfy their own sexual desires without Herod stopping them was incredibly uncomfortable to watch, but at the same time fitted perfectly with the production.

Nina Stemme as Salome © Carl Thorborg
Nina Stemme as Salome
© Carl Thorborg
Nina Stemme’s Salome was the main attraction of this performance. The characterisation of her Salome was incredibly detailed, especially in the stunning final scene. She showed what her voice is capable of, with pianissimo high notes, strong low notes and a middle and top register that on several occasions drowned out the orchestra. Her acting as a 16-year-old Judean princess was completely convincing without ever descending into caricature, and she managed both the lyrical and the all-out dramatic aspects of the role.

As Salome’s parents, Marianne Eklöf as Herodias and Niklas Rygert as Herod were not as impressive. Eklöf’s Herodias did make a striking figure, eerily resembling an ever-more deranged Joan Sutherland, complete with sparkling gold kaftan. Her singing was good, and unlike most of the other cast she was audible above the orchestra. Unfortunately, her character descended into caricature very often. However fun a camp Herodias may be, this was not the production for it. Much of the same can be said about Rygert’s Herod. His voice never quite projected above the orchestra, and on several occasions, he was completely inaudible. The campness was there as well, though it wasn’t as pronounced as with Eklöf’s Herodias.

Josef Wagner’s Jochanaan was well sung, his large voice containing the nobility necessary for the role. His acting was good, considering the fact that he spent the entirety of his on-stage time chained up. The supporting cast overall was rather too small-voiced for Salome, and there were audibility problems throughout the opera, the only real exception being Frida Österberg’s full, plum-coloured mezzo-soprano as Herodias’ page. Still, some of the audibility issues were probably due to the less-than-ideal acoustics of the Swedish Royal Opera. The orchestral playing was decent, with some very honourable playing from the horns, but overall I found the playing lacking in colour. Conductor Lawrence Renes kept the action flowing, and nothing ever seemed forced. Still, he might have dialled back on the sound a few times to let the singers be heard properly.

Sofia Jupither’s production of Richard Strauss’ Salome at the Royal Swedish Opera is a very promising operatic debut. The production is suitably dramatic, and even though a strong concept is present, she never lets it get in the way of the story. Still, it seemed like most of the attention went into the character of Salome, leaving the others to figure things out for themselves. The singing was variable, but after all, Salome is something of a one-woman show. Nina Stemme’s Salome was a brilliant demonstration of her as a performer, with a nuanced portrayal of Strauss’ enigmatic anti-heroine. Her singing was truly astounding, and the ending was chilling to the bone.