The Canadian Opera Company opened a revival run of Atom Egoyan’s production of Richard Strauss’ Salome on Friday. The title role was sung by Ambur Braid who, last time this production played, was a member of the Ensemble Studio; the COC’s Young Artists programme. It was a triumphant homecoming, all but eclipsing the rest of a very strong cast.

Ambur Braid (Salome)
© Michael Cooper

But first let’s talk about Egoyan’s production. Inevitably, it’s cinematic. It makes heavy use of projections including a giant mouth whenever Jochanaan sings off-stage and the whole of the Seven Veils sequence is played out as either video or shadows projected onto a full size scrim at the front of the stage. The Herod family seem to be staying at some sort of spa attended by various hangers-on. Costuming is white, except for orange/red wraps for Herodes and Herodias and olive drab for the soldiery. Salome is presented as a disturbed teenager. 

The Seven Veils video clearly implies that she was sexually abused as a young girl; presumably by Herodes who appears in the shadow play as a sort of Max Schreck-like character. Jochanaan is kept in a sort of dungeon below the raked stage to which the executioner and Herodias descend at the fateful moment; the latter returning with the bloody head in a bowl. There are many other imaginative touches which serve to to keep the tension high and make the hour and forty minutes or so fly by.

Ambur Braid (Salome) and Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Jochanaan)
© Michael Cooper

It’s a very strong cast. Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Jochanaan sang powerfully but with considerable lyricism. Herodes and Herodias were the excellent pairing of Michael Schade, doing the neurotic thing he does so well, and Karita Mattila, a noted Salome in her day, playing a rather frightening and imposing consort. The assortment of Jews, Nazarenes, soldiers and pages includes well known names like Frédéric Antoun (Narraboth), Carolyn Sproule (Herodias' Page), Robert Pomakov (First Nazarene) and Michael Colvin (Second Jew). There was a particularly fine cameo by Owen McCausland as a very excitable First Jew. With casting like this the ensemble numbers are unsurprisingly crisp.

Then there was Ambur Braid. I think she was born to play Salome. The role sits well for her voice ringing out across the theatre and this production allowed full scope for her extraordinary acting skills. The sexual tension with Jochanaan, the petulant refusal to countenance Herodes’ offer of alternative rewards and, of course, her infatuation with the severed head were mesmerising. The only downside was that one got so involved following her every move that the rest of the show tended to get short shrift!

Michael Schade (Herodes) and Karita Mattila (Herodias)
© Michael Cooper

Johannes Debus conducted the much augmented COC orchestra. He never let the tension drop especially in the very sparsely scored section leading up to the death of Jochanaan. The orchestra didn’t lack for lyricism either. The lush moments got the full on Romantic treatment to great effect. Debus also managed to avoid covering the singers. That’s an achievement with a huge orchestra and a set which projects very differently depending where the singer is located.

This Salome is a very fine theatrical experience indeed and Ambur Braid, on one of her relatively few recent appearances in Toronto, brought the house down.

*****