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In Opera, Review on September 30, 2018 at 9:25 am

Review – Salome (English National Opera, Friday 28 September 2018)

Salome – Allison Cook
Jokanaan – David Soar
Herod – Michael Colvin
Herodias – Susan Bickley
Narraboth – Stuart Jackson
Page – Clare Presland
Jews – Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins and Jonathan Lemalu
Nazarenes – Robert Winslade Anderson and Adam Sullivan
Soldiers – Simon Shibambu and Ronald Nairne

Dancers – Corey Annand, Kazmin Borrer, Hannah Flynn, Iona Kirk and Nicole Neolove

Director – Adena Jacobs
Designer – Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer – Lucy Carter
Choreographer – Melanie Lane

Conductor – Martyn Brabbins

It was somewhat ironic that the most successful moment in ENO’s new production of Salome, was the precise moment when other productions have usually not been as effective. Namely, Salome’s Dance.

But here, Adena Jacobs pitched it almost perfectly. A pity, as the rest of the evening failed in all but three instances, completely flat. Salome should disgust, excite and ultimately leave you feeling slightly queasy. This production left me totally cold.

This was a shame as it opened stun such promise. The  clarion-like tenor of Stuart Jackson floated beautifully out into the auditorium. No hint of strain, his mellifluous tenor, coupled with crystal clear diction was a joy to listen to. I’m not quite sure why he was made out to be a cocaine addict (if that was what his bleeding nose was meant to infer), but his was one of only two completely coherent and three dimensional characters in the entire production.

The second was the magnificent Susan Bickley. Her Herodias was superb. Vocally secure coupled with incredible acting that was wonting in the rest of the Antipas family. Whenever she was on stage, her commanding presence was formidable. Finally, all credit to the Jokanaan of David Soar. I was relieved when he shucked his stilettos and his singing was impassioned and wonderfully coloured. There were moments when I almost though the Messiah would arrive on stage.

Sadly, the rest of the cast only passed muster. This Salome is clearly a work in progress with some moments of promise in Allison Cook’s performance. Musically, her diction was, like the rest of the cast, impeccable. However, while there was much to admire in her singing, all too often it was either underpowered – more overwhelmed by Brabbins’ conducting – or under the note. The use of Sprechstimme in this role adds depth to the portrayal but the singer must also have laser-like precision of each and every note. Dramatically, this production couldn’t decide ‘who’ Salome was. The transition from waif-like princess through petulant child to suicide and/or victim was not wholly convincing.

Similarly, her step-father fidgeted from crazy to petulant to spoiled without first anchoring the character with any coherence.  Indeed, from the onset it seemed that direction from the director was rather hit and miss, focusing on individual dramatic peaks in isolation rather that providing an overall narrative syntax.

From the headless My Little Pony complete with guts made of s comfort blanket, to Herod’s Santa sack, the production team seemed to have approached the opera as a bag of tricks and symbols to be thrown across the stage haphazardly. The most striking and effective scenes were those with Jokanaan despite the all too obvious emasculating stilettos.

So it was a surprise, and a relief that this production offered a coherent and uncomfortable Dance. From Salome’s sexualised poses reminiscent of the kinds of portrayals we see in mainstream media everyday to the tweaking of the four dancers was both riveting as well as almost too uncomfortable to watch. So a shame that the Dance was so unsupported by particularly lacklustre and sterile playing as I’ve ever heard from ENO’s orchestra. The closing scene, with some of the most erotic and evocative music ever written was dramatically undermined by having Salome not reveal Jokanaan’s head. There is nothing remotely erotic or shocking about singing to a plastic bag. Therefore, it felt like the final denouement – rather non sensical as it wasn’t derived from any of the narrative that proceeded it – was bolted on simply to provide a frisson of shock.

Surprisingly, in terms of the orchestral playing, I was disappointed by the ENO orchestra. Their usual lustre and brilliance was missing, and Brabbins more often than not failed to find the right balance between the pit and the stage.

Salome should be a tough opera to watch a well as to listen to. The sensuality and brutality of the music should elicit an uneasy emotional response; and the drama doesn’t need to be overtly shlocking to shock.ltimately, for me, this Salome wasn’t delivered on a silver plate.

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  1. Please list the dancer’s names along with the rest of the cast at the start of your review. They are in the programme and a part of the production.

  2. Hi there – Thanks for your review. Just a question: did you mean Jokanaan when you talked about him kicking off the stilettos? I don’t think that Narraboth was wearing heels, but David Soar as Jokanaan certainly was.

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