The new production of Salome in Prague didn’t incite the shock and outrage unleashed by the original in 1905. But in its own way, it is no less radical. Brought to the State Opera stage by Polish director Mariusz Treliński, this version recasts the story as an Oedipal noir, a dark exploration of an incestuous nightmare and the havoc it wreaks. Taking inspiration and techniques from his work as a successful film director, Treliński casts off the Biblical framework of the piece and plugs it into the modern era, holding a mirror up to contemporary fears and anxieties. The result is profound and unsettling, a deliberate and highly effective provocation.

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome) © Ilona Sochorova
Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome)
© Ilona Sochorova

The setting is a modern set of rooms, vaguely Art Deco with only occasional splashes of color breaking the shadowy, sinister atmosphere. Dress is contemporary, with the guards turned into servants in formal wear, cloth napkins hanging from their forearms. Over the course of the evening walls melt away and fires rage as the set metamorphoses into a murky psychic landscape, not unlike the kind portrayed by filmmaker David Lynch, an acknowledged inspiration for Treliński. A spotlight that creates the effect of TV static is particularly effective in creating a sense of distortion and isolation.

Salome, sung by German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, is an icy diva in an evening gown riven by sexual tension and haunted by her past. She sings most of her entreaties to Jochanaan from a prone position on the couch or floor, rubbing and stroking herself to lines like “I want to kiss your mouth”.  The prophet remains a disembodied voice in the dungeon, his lines sung with ominous authority by Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny in the orchestra pit. The closest Salome gets to him – at least while he’s alive – is a silent figure that periodically emerges from the shadows, unknowable and unattainable.

Treliński’s decision to keep Jochanaan offstage, as an archetypal voice of guilt and doom rather than a real character, has its drawbacks. When Salome describes his white skin and wants to touch his hair, she’s essentially talking to thin air – and likely confusing much of the audience. But it’s a powerful device in developing a narrative told from her point of view, with reality increasingly distorted and the horrors of her past closing in.

These are revealed in the pivotal Dance of the Seven Veils, which in this production is not a dance at all. The scene opens in an expansive kitchen, where Herod, clad in a robe and black briefs, is drunk and increasingly belligerent. After Salome agrees to dance for him, the stage goes dark. Then, in a single spotlight, a series of schoolgirl Salomes appear like broken dolls, staggering around or splayed across a chair. A final encounter with a hooded male figure leaves no doubt about the brutal incidents that have scarred her for life.

After that, Salome’s mournful paean to Jochanaan’s head is almost anticlimactic. She is not a depraved seductress, but a victim of sexual abuse who has taken revenge in the only way available. In her moment of twisted triumph she is a broken, pathetic figure, the product of a criminally dysfunctional family that might be found in any city in the world today.

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome) © Ilona Sochorova
Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome)
© Ilona Sochorova

Treliński likes to barrage his audience with visuals – in this production, floating projections of key words or lines from the libretto, a mirror that reflects Salome’s psyche, and an enormous image of the moon that comes and goes like a ghostly apparition. Most of them don’t make any rational sense, but that’s not the point. They have a subliminal power that cannot be denied, taking the audience deeper into a state of psychological trauma.

The principal singers on opening night were uniformly strong. Barkmin was alternately cool and vulnerable, her voice strong and tense as a coiled spring. Konieczny sounded even more foreboding from the pit than he would have onstage, and Polish tenor Jacek Laszczkowski brought an authentic sense of menace to Herod’s increasingly agitated lines.

And who knew the State Opera Orchestra could play 20th century music so well? The orchestra excels in the Czech and Romantic repertoire, but under the baton of German conductor Heiko Mathias Förster it brought an electric immediacy to Strauss’ modern score, with creepy woodwinds and abrasive horns ratcheting up the tension.

Strauss himself conducted productions of Salome at the State Opera (then the New German Theatre) in 1906 and 1922. Asked a few days before the première how he felt working in the composer’s shadow, Treliński said, “Stressed! Absolutely stressed!” Judging by the looks on the audience’s faces as they were leaving the theatre on opening night, he wasn’t the only one.

****1