Salome was a huge, scandalous success at its 1905 première, and stagings of this, Richard Strauss’ third opera, have continued to shock audiences over the past century. This is hardly to be wondered at: after all, the title character’s final monologue ends with her kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, whom she has had executed for spurning her advances. The trifecta of religion, sex and violence was very much to the fore in Opera Australia’s new production, designed by Gale Edwards and her colleagues, which amped up the brutality and raunchiness considerably. From one perspective, this was a necessary renovation: audiences nowadays have been exposed to more extreme material than were the people of Strauss’ day, and therefore greater provocation is needed to elicit anything like the same visceral response. This production did not commend itself to everyone, judging from the trickle of those leaving before the end. However, while tacky in places and frankly uncomfortable in others, it certainly wasn’t boring.

Cheryl Barker as Salome reclining with the head of Jokannan © Lisa Tomasetti
Cheryl Barker as Salome reclining with the head of Jokannan
© Lisa Tomasetti

The curtain rose to reveal animal cadavers on the back wall, giving an appropriately abattoir-like feel to the red-coloured set. From the outset, it was clear that certain liberties were being taken with the original directions. The young page (a trouser role) was turned into a female role here, losing the clear homoerotic subtext of his/her relationship with the Captain of the Guard, Narraboth. Both Sian Pendry and David Corcoran acquitted themselves well, as did the guards and other minor characters who occupy stage until the entrance of Salome.

“Salome, being a chaste virgin and an oriental princess, must be played with the simplest and most restrained of gestures”, wrote Strauss on one occasion. Cheryl Barker’s approach to the role was rather more physical: her persuasion of the enamoured Narraboth went way beyond promising to smile on him, and when she was finally allowed to interact with Jokanaan, she was again very hands-on. Her appeals to be allowed to touch his hair and body were actually delivered while she was doing these very things, not the only place where the text was at odds with the visual action. Vocally there were some moments where the tone was less than immaculate, and the projection on the lower notes was clearly a challenge, but mostly Barker convincingly mastered the fearfully difficult role.

As played by the stentorian-voiced John Wegner, Jokanaan was a formidable presence: one could well understand the mixture of fear and fascination which led Herod to imprison but also to listen to him. Despite his chains, Wegner bounded from one place to another, and confronted the audience with a thousand-watt stare. However, allowing him to turn this gaze on Salome was a mistake: her later reproach “you never saw me: had you seen me, you would have loved me” was turned into nonsense. Taken in conjunction with the unusual level of physical contact between the two, it suggested an element of mutual passion. In my view, this reduces the rich psychological complexities of the drama to a pedestrian star-crossed-lovers tale. Were I a dramaturg set on a subversive misreading of the Baptist’s psyche, I’d look suspiciously at his violent denunciations of Salome’s mother, Herodias: a cover for some other emotion, perhaps?

The Dance of the Seven Veils, in which the soprano (or a dancing substitute) normally loses all/most of her clothing in stages, was cleverly reimagined. In place of the usual striptease, seven different male fantasies were successively unveiled: baby doll (à la Britney), French maid, pole dancer, and so forth. Aside from one part which was deeply offensive to my Catholic sensibilities, this worked well, the highlight being when the Marilyn lookalike reconstructed the iconic billowing skirt scene from The Seven-Year Itch on the grille entrance to Jokanaan’s prison.

The production certainly traded in deliberate anachronisms: the soldiers wore combats, the Jews stereotypical 20th-century garb. Actually, only some of the Jews were thus attired – the two Nazarenes who spoke of the Messiah were in Catholic clerical garb, and there was also a Hindu and Greek Orthodox priest on stage as well. Thus the caricature of futile disputes among the different Jewish factions was recast as a dispute among different religions (the agnostic Strauss would have had no problems here).

Salome’s necrophiliac final scene was perhaps the most confronting part of the production. Not content with fondling of the head, at one point she groped inside his mouth and forcibly ripped his tongue out, a gesture calculated to make the most jaded recoil in horror. Retribution follows swiftly commanded by the appalled Herod, and is similarly violent. Where Strauss directed that she was to be crushed beneath the shields of the soldiers, here the headsman cut her throat in full view of the audience, and she fell to the ground as the final brutal chords sounded, blood seeping from the gash on her neck.

Aside from those mentioned earlier, John Pickering deserves much commendation for managing to infuse Herod’s speech-like lines with moments of lyricism, and Jacqueline Dark, as Herodias, demonstrated an attractive and powerful voice which hopefully will lead to bigger roles in the future. The orchestra under Johannes Fritzsch coped pretty well on the whole with the extreme demands of the score, a few moments of untidiness aside. However, what was missing was the lush Straussian sheen that this music really needs, probably a consequence of the limited numbers of strings that could be accommodated in the pit.