There’s no time for niceties in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. There’s no overture that introduces themes and focuses the mind. Rather, the music and the narrative plunge straight into the tangle of lust and depravity that culminates in death and ruin.
This week in Sydney, Opera Australia presents a new production of Salome, directed by Gale Edwards, with Cheryl Barker singing the title role, John Wegner as Jokanaan, Jacqueline Dark as Herodias, wife of Herod and mother of Salome, John Pickering as Herod, and David Corcoran as Narraboth. ‘Luxury casting’ is how Dark describes this ensemble.
The production is gory, graphic and brilliantly executed at all levels. It is also thought provoking and even witty.
For mezzo- soprano Jacqueline Dark, it is a role debut, and, by her own admission, one that is replete with challenges. Speaking to her after the dress rehearsal, her affable manner was at odds with the grotesque costume and make-up she wore.
“It’s a difficult opera for everyone” she mused. “Strauss is always difficult, musically – the pitches, the rhythms, the entries – they all take time to learn until you hear it in context.” Salome is through composed – ie, it is a continuous piece of music without distinct arias. The musical texture presents challenging chromaticism as it lurches through keys that are defined by sharps and flats rather than by naturals.
Richard Strauss expected even more from his cast. The larger than usual orchestra demands more powerful voices. The instrumental ensemble conducted by Johannes Fritsch includes 8 percussionists, offstage organ and celeste and quadruple woodwind, featuring the double reeded heckelphone which plays an octave lower than the oboe.
Dark is positioned upstage as the curtain rises. Mercifully she has to do little singing until she is downstage. Crucially though, these are the moments when through stagecraft alone, and whilst there is another narrative centre stage, she has to establish the repulsive character of Herodias and her dysfunctional relationship with Herod. Says Dark, “We rehearsed that a lot. Gale was insistent that every single person on the stage had to be in the drama all the time. Whatever happened upstage had to set up our characters for the rest of the opera.” As Herod feasts, he is surrounded not by Herodias and Salome, but by a fractious band of priests (representing here the religions of the world). Herodias and Salome are relegated to the ends of the banquet table. Dark is emphatic. ” She wouldn’t sit with him because he’s so repulsive. I think she absolutely detests him. He too would much rather be surrounded by the religious figures of the world – he wants to sit with the powerful and famous. ”
Dark has recently become a mother herself and finds it a curious juxtaposition to play the mother from hell as she discovers her own unashamedly maternal response to her 4 month old son Alexander, who ‘s become an honorary member of the company . “Herodias is a shocking mother! She’s married the brother and murderer of her first husband and allows him to prey on her daughter. Her daughter is a psychopath and Herodias is full of guilt at how wrong it has gone. It was tricky because when we first started rehearsing, Gale observed that I wasn’t being nasty enough. She said I looked exactly like a mother with a new baby and there was too much kindness! She had to drum it out of me at every rehearsal. Cheryl (Barker) thought it was hilarious that I would play this horrible woman and then feed Alexander during the breaks! In some ways, playing Herodias was liberating because she is so far removed from who I really am”.
Dark believes that Herodias is not completely without guilt. As Salome performs the notorious Dance of the Seven Veils, Herodias quietly numbs her pain with drink. In the final scene, she watches from the periphery in defeat and speechless horror as Salome cavorts with the necrotic trophy that is the head of Jokanaan.
Tenor Kanen Breen singing the role of the first Jew, disentangles Alexander’s fingers from his fake beard. He adds “Gale is really good at creating a completely separate world. With her inner monologue in your head, it becomes easier because she’s set it all out for you and all you have to do is inhabit to it. ” Brian Thomson’s blood drenched set with carcasses splayed in the background underscores the violence in the tale. “The set tells such a powerful story, it’s like a cast member in itself.”
Both Dark and Breen agree that despite the challenges of the dark tale, the music and of this production, Salome is an ideal introduction to opera. Breen has the last word. “Don’t let the fact that it’s Richard Strauss or that it’s ‘modern’ put you off. It’s an extraordinarily pithy, succinct night in the theatre. I defy anyone to leave unmoved.”
Opera Australia presents Salome in the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House at 7.30 pm on October 12, 16, 19, 23, 26, 29 and 31.
Matinee at 1pm: Nov 3
Tickets: From $70
OA Box office: (02) 9318 8200 or visit www.opera-australia.org.au
Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen and Alexander were interviewed by Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney ©