For his fourth production for the new Oslo opera house, Norwegian director Stefan Herheim turned his attention to Richard Strauss’ one-act opera Salome. This production is a co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival (where this production premièred in 2011) and the Teatro Real in Madrid.

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg

Instead of first-century Judea, Herheim sets his Salome in an oddly timeless place, a dark courtyard falling apart at the edges with a giant projection of the moon and a giant, curved wall forming the backdrop. In the centre of the stage stands a giant, ever-so-phallic brass telescope that functions both as a spotlight and cannon. It is also the only colour on the mostly black stage. The characters are dressed in clothes reminiscent of the 1950s and ’60s, with silver dinner jackets for the gentlemen (Narraboth, Herodes and Jochanaan) and black dresses for Herodias and her page with varying amounts of sequins; the more sequins, the lower the rank. Salome offers contrast to this, dressed in all white, with bright, almost white, platinum blonde hair. There is more than a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe.

In Herheim’s Salome, everyone longs for something unattainable. Herodias loves her husband; her page loves Narraboth, who loves Salome, who loves Jochanaan, who in turn longs for the Second Coming. After Narraboth kills himself, so does the Page, in a fit of necrophiliac hysteria that foreshadows some of what is to come. Only Salome gets her Jochanaan in the end; when Herodes sees what Salome is doing to the head of Jochanaan, he calls for the guards to kill her, but instead he is shot by Herodias using the telescope-cum-cannon. As a sign of the female dominance of Herheim’s interpretation, Herodias turns the phallus against Herodes, which destroys him.

Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils is undoubtedly the opera’s most famous excerpt, if only because it provides a legitimate excuse for on-stage nudity. The dance can often come off as a rather awkward striptease, but here, Herheim dispenses with nudity and the expectation thereof entirely. Instead, he brings on six Salome doubles who entice both Herodes and his guests, a motley crew of religious figures and totalitarian dictators from throughout history – Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin, to name but a few. The Salomes having enticed the assembled guests, they then proceed to slit the guests’ throats, one by one, in full synchronisation. As they die, each of the guests have a red scarf pulled up from their throats. The effect is rather like a Busby Berkeley film, only with more murder.

Jochanaan’s head also bears mentioning. Unlike most other productions, Jochanaan’s head is not human-sized. It has instead been super-sized. So super-sized, in fact, that Salome’s final monologue is delivered standing in Jochanaan’s mouth. Whilst God’s mouthpiece has been silenced, there is still sound coming from it.

Even though the production has its share of outright brilliant ideas, the first half or so suffered from some rather clumsy directing and awkward acting. This was especially true for the Page of Sabrina Kögel, whose overacting was almost embarrassing to watch, especially after the death of Narraboth, an event that would culminate in her own suicide a few minutes later. Still, she sang well with an attractive voice and remarkable diction. The Narraboth of Daniel Johansson was also well sung, and he also seemed to suffer from a general lack of directoral input. Things did pick up considerably after Narraboth’s death, and it shows that most of the directorial attention was given to the second half of the show. The Herodes of Thor Inge Falch was never really characterised by more than pure sleaziness with a hint of disgust, but his characteristic voice suited the part of the tetrarch very well indeed. Hege Høisæter’s Herodias could at times have aimed for better projection, as she was very occasionally swallowed up by the orchestra. But most of the time, she made a fierce impression as the ever so slightly deranged princess. Completing the main trio of supporting characters was the stentorian Thomas Hall’s Jochanaan, cutting through the dense orchestral forces with ease. The orchestra was superbly led by John Helmer Fiore, and included some particularly swoon-worthy horn playing.

And then for the star of the show: Salome, like Elektra truly is a one-woman show with minor interruptions, and Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs filled the demanding role spectacularly, especially considering this was both her role and company debut. She did take a few minutes to warm up, but when she first got going, there was no stopping her. While one could have wanted a more seductive and tender voice in her scenes with Jochanaan, her large, steely voice shone in the more dramatic parts. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a soprano with such powerful low notes, something Blancke-Biggs showed off to great effect when begging Herodes for the head of Jochanaan. The final monologue was nothing less than ravishing. I would really love to see her back in Oslo, especially in Strauss’ heavier roles.

Stefan Herheim’s production of Salome provides an insightful and controversial interpretation of this most scandalous of operas. It is astoundingly well sung, especially the title character, although the early parts are somewhat hampered by what seems to be a lack of direction. Luckily, the rest of the production, not to mention the singing more than make up for it. Unfortunately this is the last production of the Oslo opera season, but at least it’s fair to say this season is ending with a bang.

****1