After a not inconsiderable time in their roles, Daniel Kramer and Martyn Brabbins, English National Opera’s Artistic and Music Directors, have been able to produce a season that is entirely their own, uninfluenced by their predecessors. The heart sank on reading Kramer’s introduction to the season which he optimistically hopes “provoke discussion around what an improved balance of masculine and feminine might encompass and the changes we need to make this possible”; optimism that his productions might break free of the chains imposed by this restrictive mission statement lingered, but the first test is Adena Jacob’s new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome which alas does not bode well.

Allison Cook (Salome) © Catherine Ashmore
Allison Cook (Salome)
© Catherine Ashmore

Derivative and cliched, her production is bereft of real substance or originality. The staging is in that vague modernist style which thrives on empty space and contrast of black and white. It opens in darkness, the only light derived from an illuminated fish tank within which a naked woman serenely enjoys a bath. When Jochanaan is brought to Salome, our location shifts to something that bears a striking resemblance to a dilapidated school gym. The big idea for this scene was attaching a camera to Jochanaan’s face and projecting his mouth onto the backdrop. Distracting, unpleasant, pointless, with the additional benefit of reducing Jochanaan, in theory a character of dignity, to a figure of ridicule. It seems to strike a chord with Salome though, judging by the hand she enthusiastically inserts into her trousers. As to Herod’s banquet hall, the mind simply boggles at the centrepiece, which appeared to be a decapitated My Little Pony. The production concludes not with Salome being bludgeoned to death with a number of shields, but suicide by pistol. Of the costumes, a bland mixture of black uniforms and dodgy tights and knickers combinations is enlivened by Herod’s outfit, a combination of senile Santa meets Aladdin's cave. A word of praise though, must go to choreographer Melanie Lane whose interpretation of the Dance of the Seven Veils brings in a team of dancers for a vivid and sinuous performance.

Allison Cook (Salome) © Catherine Ashmore
Allison Cook (Salome)
© Catherine Ashmore

Making her first appearance at ENO, Allison Cook’s role debut as Salome was a mixed success. I am not quite convinced that the role’s unique range is entirely suited to her voice and there were a couple of moments where the voice sounded, if not pushed then not entirely comfortable. Diction also veered in clarity. Where she stood out was with the colour and drama of the voice; imperious and enticing in her dealings with Narraboth, desperate and fiery with Jochanaan, cold and forceful with Herod. Her final scene was compellingly delivered, sung with dramatic intelligence and entranced passion, the severed head carried within a plastic bag as though straight from a butcher’s stall. David Soar, perhaps discomforted by the muzzle-like contraption with the camera on the end, sang Jochanaan with typical musicality, but rather less force than usual.

David Soar (Jochanaan) © Catherine Ashmore
David Soar (Jochanaan)
© Catherine Ashmore

Michael Colvin’s Herod, flopping around in puddles of blood, was a study in moral and mental decline, disturbingly lascivious and with a well-crafted repellance to him, though his voice lacked an edge. Stuart Jackson stood out as Narraboth, showing a bright and clean tenor voice with shaped phrases and plenty of colour. His diction was strong and his performance cut through the staging to bring an air of credibility and humanity to his character. Susan Bickley was a steely Herodias, but underused.

Best of all was the performance from the pit. Brabbins gave a masterful reading of the score, unleashing generous waves of sound from the orchestra at the volume that one craves from the piece, but retaining a sensitive balance that avoided drowning the singers out. A musical performance that redeemed a poor production.

**111