For Opera Hong Kong’s joint production with Slovenian National Theatre Opera and Ballet Ljubljana, director Andrejs Zagars went for a multimedia presentation of Salome modernised to the 20th century. It had its moments, but left serious questions about deviations from Strauss’ score built around Oscar Wilde’s play unanswered.

Kirsten Chambers (Salome) and Daniel Sumegi (Jochanaan) © Opera Hong Kong
Kirsten Chambers (Salome) and Daniel Sumegi (Jochanaan)
© Opera Hong Kong

The action on stage took place inside what could well have been a box with a grill ceiling and a giant window at the back looking out to a wooded landscape lit up by a giant moon. The flat walls allowed kaleidoscopic video images to stream across the stage. The back window became a large screen showing close-up shots of Salome’s dance for Herod (“The Dance of the Seven Veils”). Instead of being held captive in a cistern, the prophet Jochanaan was kept in a cell hidden behind the wall right of stage, access to which was controlled by a digital lock. The disadvantage of this was that his voice offstage had to be amplified through speakers. This was no Herod’s palace, nor was there a large staircase or dungeon, but the visual impact of the combination was nevertheless impressive.

In pink high heels, swanky pink top and slacks, wrapped in a matching furry scarf, Salome looked more like a socialite out on the town than a young woman with a touch of innocence about to undergo a transformation into a sexually aware, vindictive vixen. Wearing dark glasses, a white dress and black velvety gloves that went up to her shoulders upon her first entrance, Herodias looked ready for a California beach party in the 60s. Narraboth was in a gaoler’s uniform, fully equipped with gun in a holster, but did Jochanaan have to be in a straightjacket?

Sex, not pornography, is an important part of the opera’s subject matter. Strauss had a clear vision of how the “Dance of the Seven Veils” should be done – “no flirting with Herod” and “thoroughly decent as though it were being done on a prayer-mat”. On Sunday, the dance was one of a single veil in the form of a translucent curtain hung in the proscenium as a make-believe pole. The ceiling lowered to create a stronger sense of oppression. Salome's serpentine slithering – under the coffee table, on top of Herod and then between his legs – was meant to be provocative. Instead of baring all at the end, she disappeared into a door left of stage, followed by Herod. To cap the lack of subtlety, Herod adjusted his fly when he came out.

Kirsten Chambers (Salome) © Opera Hong Kong
Kirsten Chambers (Salome)
© Opera Hong Kong

Perhaps I was too focussed on Salome at the time, but I missed how Narraboth killed himself; nor did Herod slip on Narraboth’s blood, a key to his superstitious belief something bad was about to happen. Although Salome asked for Jochanaan’s head on a silver platter, she got it in a bowl. Perhaps in deference to the sensibilities of Hong Kong audiences, it was never really clear that it was a head. From my vantage point in the centre of the auditorium, the most I could catch was a fleeting glimpse of the tip of the nose – the rest of the time it was just an unkempt mass of brown hair.

I have never been quite sure whether Salome demands Jochanaan’s head in reprisal for accusing her mother of incest or for his rejection of her amorous advances. Kirsten Chambers’ Salome was a slut, and settled the question for me. Her voice did not have enough firepower for this demanding role, often straining to be heard, especially initially. Her transformation from innocence to worldliness was not convincing, and she tore apart her monologue towards the end.

Peter Bronder’s Herod had too many clownish mannerisms; Herod may be a lascivious imbecile with a penchant for murder, but he is no fool. The timbre of his voice had a poignant edge to it, and his delivery was perspicacious. Jacqueline Dark as Herodias brought plenty of thrust to her part, bellowing her lines with a firm grounding, but not nearly manipulative enough. Despite his limited exposure, by far the most riveting performance came from Daniel Sumegi as Jochanaan. He was a resonant sound box that echoed through the hall with intrepid authority and conviction. Led by Alex Tam, the local regulars provided well-balanced and harmonious support.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Neschling, supported the bizarre drama with voluminous backing that allowed the lyricism to triumph over the cynical dissonances. Strauss’ superb orchestration came through with clarity and cogency.

***11