While the audience cheered at the end of the new Salome at Dutch National Opera, Malin Byström punched the air triumphantly with her fist. With good reason, because this was a wonderful role debut.

Malin Byström (Salome) © BAUS
Malin Byström (Salome)
© BAUS
A blonde beauty in the Tippi Hedren mould, she was the fascinating focal point of Ivo van Hove’s tasteful production that, although not era-specific, aesthetically recalls American suspense films of the fifties and sixties. In Richard Strauss' 1905 opera, Salome is a Judaean princess who dances so seductively for her stepfather Herod that he gives her the head of John the Baptist. Her interpreter needs to convey her dangerous obsession with John (Jochanaan in the opera). And she has to sing heavy music composed for a dramatic soprano. Byström was completely believable as a bemused, then sexually consumed young adult. She moved uninhibitedly without being vulgar. As she is a full lyric rather than a dramatic soprano, the role is a fraction too big for her. The rich spiciness of her middle voice thins out above the staff and some of her top notes bordered on shrill. But by singing with technical assurance and charging the text with meaning and mettle, she created an intensely captivating Salome.

A strong cast surrounded her. Peter Sonn was a Mozartian Narraboth, the Syrian captain who kills himself over Salome. He and Hanna Hipp as the Page gave the performance an auspicious vocal start. Thundering and dour, the bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was an excellent Jochanaan.

Malin Byström (Salome), Evgeny Nikitin (Jochanaan) © Clärchen&Matthias Baus
Malin Byström (Salome), Evgeny Nikitin (Jochanaan)
© Clärchen&Matthias Baus
His tattered costume exposed his baroque tattoos and he looked like an ex-member of a biker gang who had found Jesus. House favourite Doris Soffel was the prime target of his grim fundamentalism, Herodias. Van Hove did not present her as an unhinged harpy, but a refined politician’s wife who maybe drinks too much under stress. Soffel now has to scoop up to her high notes, but she is a formidable singing actress. Fortunately, despite the sophistication of her character, she trowelled on the drama and volume at key moments. Tenor Lance Ryan was dapper and reined-in as her husband Herod – a ruler in a perpetual cold sweat, plagued by his lust for his stepdaughter. Herod was perhaps the most interesting character onstage, but, although the lack of drooling and ranting was welcome, Ryan seemed directed to hold back too much, in loudness as well as temperament. There wasn’t a weak link in the whole cast, but basses James Cresswell and James Platt as, respectively, 1st Nazarene and 1st Soldier, made a particularly fine impression. The well-executed quintet of bickering Jews was dominated by Marcel Beekman’s lacerant tenor.

Malin Byström (Salome), Lance Ryan (Herodes), Doris Soffel (Herodias) © BAUS
Malin Byström (Salome), Lance Ryan (Herodes), Doris Soffel (Herodias)
© BAUS
The last production of the DNO season is also a Holland Festival event, and, as in recent years, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was in the pit. Conductor Daniele Gatti opened with a languid tempo and lingered on the sensuousness of the score, reserving the doom and decibels for the final scenes. He extracted as much lyricism as possible but also smothered it abruptly into sudden dissonant clashes. Strauss’s word painting, such as the black flapping wings of Herod’s anxiety or the glittering jewels he offers Salome instead of Jochanaan’s head, were rendered by the RCO in lucent colours. Only when the despondent Herod offered Salome the sacred veil of the Temple did Gatti unbridle the full volume of the orchestra in an thrilling run-up to the violent finale.

With clarity and elegance Van Hove depicts the total downfall of a dysfunctional family. He is faithful to the libretto and illuminates it with telling details. He suggests that Salome, the rebellious daughter, is first attracted to the prophet because he insults Herodias. During one of his sermons Jochanaan shows he is not immune to Salome’s charms, which is why he refuses to look at her, but he sublimates his desire into religious zeal. Through an opening in a huge black wall we see the interior of Herod’s palace, where his guests and staff are gathered for a political summit. Jochanaan’s pit is in front of it, outside. As Salome transforms from a wilful teenager to a perverse seductress, the silver moon on the wall turns red, then is eclipsed. While Byström dances for Herod with graceful eroticism, we see a film of her inner fantasy, her dancing naked for Jochanaan.

Malin Byström (Salome) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Malin Byström (Salome)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus
This directorial coup is somewhat marred by having Herod’s guests join in with a daft dip-and-turn handkerchief dance. Another masterstroke is revealing the Baptist’s body (Nikitin’s double) on an enormous silver platter, instead of just his head. The red horror rises from the pit, besmirching the cleanliness of the set, while the blackness of the eclipse devours the whole sky. A broken Herod and his stunned guests watch Salome caressing the slithery mass and smearing herself with blood. It feels like the end of the world.