A common truism of this one-act opera is that it is still shocking long after all those late Victorian critics and censors got at it. This concert staging emphasised the fact once again. Salome was enticingly outrageous in the days when fixed assumptions about sexual orientation were being challenged and when some thought that human evolution might be going into reverse. And it is disturbing today, as well as strangely fascinating, to watch something based on obsessive lusts, a young teenager’s fetishism and, of course, a severed head.

Jennifer Holloway Salome and Oliver Johnston (Narraboth) © Robert Workman
Jennifer Holloway Salome and Oliver Johnston (Narraboth)
© Robert Workman

A powerful sense of impending doom was there from the start in this production set in a capacious, splendidly ornate Victorian town hall. A clarinet’s rising notes and the sentiments of Narraboth, the Syrian Captain of the Guard (sung by Oliver Johnston, a fine lyric tenor) who is expressing his agitated thoughts made sure of that, and the Page with him (Heather Lowe) added reinforcement. The relationship between the pair was once controversial in the source play by Oscar Wilde, but here it is all about Narraboth’s lust for Salome, who is out of his league. Strauss was wisely ruthless in his treatment of the Oscar Wilde original, slashing half the dialogue and putting the central focus on a triad of characters – Salome, her stepfather Herod and the ranting prophet Jochanaan.

Arnold Bezuyen (Herod) © Robert Workman
Arnold Bezuyen (Herod)
© Robert Workman

Soprano Jennifer Holloway was admirable as Salome in a sleek dress, coping magnificently with the massive demands of the role, which at least do not require her on this occasion to become a ballerina as well. Gestures on the concert stage are necessarily limited, perhaps too much: her tentative reaching out to Jochanaan, the object of her obsession, seemed a little too restrained, though her fixed stances with wide-open arms were effective. She was especially thrilling in her final monologue, which explodes with erotic power. Herod Antipas (tenor Arnold Bezuyen, like Holloway a first-timer with Opera North) was seen mainly as a victim of his lust for his stepdaughter, a ghastly figure avoiding any comic potential in interactions with his nagging wife. He might be downtrodden, but this fact was not over-stressed. He was particularly impressive in singing and acting when Salome repeated her demands for Jochanaan’s head on a silver platter. His growing frustration and desperation was well controlled as he balanced between imploring and strident tones. The charismatic bass-baritone Robert Hayward was a terrific Jochanaan: a dominating presence, significantly warm-voiced for a character who is to some extent a Judeo-Christian version of a Jihadist agitator. The teenage Salome’s sexual fixation for him, even as he condemned her in horrifying terms, became more credible because of this. His gestures, like Salome’s, seemed too limited, though, and he spent too long with his fist up at his forehead after being let out of the cistern in which he is imprisoned.

Robert Hayward (Jochanaan) and Jennifer Holloway (Salome) © Robert Workman
Robert Hayward (Jochanaan) and Jennifer Holloway (Salome)
© Robert Workman

Mezzo Katarina Karnéus as Herodias, Salome’s mother, was compellingly unpleasant, but had a sweetness in her voice, or perhaps a lack of harshness, which did not seem to fit the part, at least not in line with my preconceptions of the character as a manipulative hag. Incidentally, she was the only one removing any clothing at the start of the “Dance of the Seven Veils”, which otherwise took place only in the music. Sitting, she removed her arm-length gloves. Adrian Dwyer, John Findon, Stuart Laing, Nicholas Watts and Jihoon Kim as five Jews did full justice to Strauss when they squabbled, vigorously disputing the nature of God in a section which teeters on the edge of satire.

Cast members in the ornate Leeds Town Hall © Robert Workman
Cast members in the ornate Leeds Town Hall
© Robert Workman

The great eminence at the performance was conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, last seen in Leeds Town Hall for Opera North’s Turandot a year ago. He presided over an orchestra which was large but rather smaller than the one specified by the composer. He was never carried away completely in a flurry of leitmotifs, bringing out all the nuances of a complex and challenging work, so intimacy and brutality were stressed, along with sheer sexiness. He drove the orchestra unflaggingly, so that the audience caught the seductive frenzy without being simply inundated.

****1