Joining the ever-increasing army of enfant terrible opera directors, regular Staatsoper Hannover regisseur Ingo Kerkhof stripped Salome bare of everything except where it could have been justified. There was no palace, no terrace, no banqueting hall, no cistern, no moon, no soldiers, no guests – just a completely empty stage, admittedly cleverly lit by Elana Siberski. Herod Antipas must have had his decorating and entertainment budget severely slashed by the Roman fiscus as the only trappings were one chair and a drinks trolley. Costume designer Inge Medert didn’t have much work to do either. All the singers could have just walked in from the Opernplatz.

The drama opened with the dialogue between Narraboth and the Page sung from the front row of the first tier of the auditorium, which was quite a shock for unsuspecting operagoers sitting nearby. Narraboth doesn’t get to the stage until well into the confrontation between Salome and Jochanaan and when he fatally slits a vein in his arm, it is more than ten metres from where Herod later slips on blood. Instead of emerging dazed and dishevelled from the subterranean cistern, Jochanaan nonchalantly strolls in from the back of the stage wearing a nifty dark suit and open black shirt. The only indication of possible imprisonment deprivation was an absence of shoes. When Salome enthuses about the evangelist’s ivory white body (which she can’t actually see because he is wearing a suit), wine-grape black hair and kissable pomegranate-red mouth, Jochanaan repeatedly spurns the daughter of Sodom’s advances with multiple “niemals” and “zurücks!”. In Kerkof’s concept, the protagonists almost copulate on the floor. “Du bist verflucht!” seemed more like a reluctant admonition as the prophet cradled the perverted Princess in his arms.

Herod complains that “Ich hatte einen Ring an meiner rechten Hand”. Perhaps this tetrarch was casually ambidextrous because in Kerkhof’s direction, Herodias takes the ring from Herod’s left paw. Salome doesn’t remove seven veils... or even one. The famous erotic dance involved Herod in a bizarre blind-man’s buff with Salome doing the shimmy shakes with a septet of Jews and Nazarenes wearing dresses. In the ultimate directional distortion, after Herod orders “Man töte dieses Weib!” Salome does not suffer a squishy demise under the soldiers’ shields but strolls off to the back of the stage, presumably to seek smoochable mouths elsewhere. The only fidelity to Wilde’s chimerical text was an exceptionally bloody and realistic severed head, although it was originally wrapped up in cloth like a Christmas ham.

Musically things were much more satisfactory with several impressive vocal performances. The assorted Jews, Nazarenes and Soldiers were undistinguished but despite the uncomfortable proximity of singing two metres from several audience members, Simon Bode brought a solid lyric timbre to the role of Narraboth. Khatuna Mikaberidze was a pouty Herodias with a censorious schoolmarm persona. Despite a lot of disconcerting arm-flapping, Brian Davis sang an acceptable Jochanaan although phrasing in the “auf dem See von Galiläa” passage could have been more mellifluous. Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer was not an especially stentorian Salome but the demanding closing scene was puissant. The terrors of the tessitura were mostly overcome and the low chest note G flat on “Geheimnis des Todes” was for once sung instead of growled. The one and a half octave arpeggio on “der Kopf des Jochanaan” was biting and there were some pearly pianissimi scattered through the dissonance. Kremer’s characterisation was more over-sexed slattern than psychotic necrophiliac. The stand-out performance came from Robert Künzli as Herod, his clarion tenor timbre and admirable diction, especially in the tricky “Du willst nicht auf mich hören” monologue, was unfailingly impressive. 

Top laurels however went to Staatsoper Hannover’s Generalmusikdirektor Ivan Repušić. Conducting Salome for the first time in this new production, the Croatian maestro made the Hannover orchestra sound almost like the Wiener Philharmoniker, at least in woodwinds and brass. There was translucent clarity in Repušić’s reading which followed Strauss’ dissuasion that the enormous score for Salome should sound like Mendelssohn’s “elfin music”.  This is not to say that there was a shortage of decibels, as the molto espressivo passage following “sei verflucht” and the closing bars were roof-raising, but there was also a subtlety and sensuality in the pit which the singers should have emulated. Acrid clarinet chromatics were immaculate and atmospheric; flute trilling pristine; marcato string sforzandi bow ripping; contrabassoon happily hooty and the high B flat double bass scratching genuinely creepy. In 2012 Repušić was made Kapellmeister at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and recently appointed chief conductor of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester. This is a maestro on the move and Repušić’s masterly conducting rescued this production from abject ignominy.