Richard Strauss’ Salome is a story of lust, obsession and unrequited love. Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, is the object of desire of both Herod and his army captain, Narraboth. Salome, however, only has eyes for Jochanaan (John the Baptist), who is being held prisoner by Herod. Jochanaan denounces the adulterous Herod and his wife Herodias, and spurns Salome’s advances. When Herod offers Salome anything she desires for a dance, she demands Jochanaan’s head on a silver platter.
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A sense of déjà vu hit me when the curtain lifted—the steeply raked stage bears an eerie semblance to COC’s staging of The Flying Dutchman earlier this season. The set is dark, minimalist and sterile—it is not until the cast appears dressed as doctors and nurses, that it becomes apparent that the setting is not a palace, but a sort of sanatorium in which, fittingly, madness takes place, with Herod and his family all deranged in their own ways.
Canadian soprano Ambur Braid nails her fiercely demanding lead role with a marvellously rich and voluptuous sound that ranges from low G to high B, and which soars effortlessly over the orchestra. Her presence dominates the performance from her first notes. Unlike the seductive temptress Salome is usually portrayed in other productions, Braid’s character is more like a temperamental, strong-willed child who is at first curious about Jochanaan and praises his beauty, but lashes out and insults him when he ignores her, becoming more dangerously obsessive with his every rejection. In the final scene, she cradles Jochanaan’s blood-dripping head like a vindicated little girl rocking the doll that she finally possesses.
Finnish soprano Karita Mattila last shared the COC stage with Braid in the 2018 world premiere of Hadrian, in which they both shone in their lead roles. A vocal powerhouse and a strong coloratura, Mattila is compelling as Herodias, who desperately tries to regain her husband’s favour.
Even with his short time on stage, German Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s deep and bold baritone voice makes him an intensely formidable Jochanaan in his COC debut.
For me, Canadian tenor Michael Schade steals the show. He is superb as Herod, both vocally and dramatically. His maniacal character goes from being paranoid one moment to sleazy in the next, even drawing laughters amidst such a dark story. Unlike Salome who is steadfastly focused and in control of getting what she wants, Herod’s petulant behaviour is a giveaway that he is not in control of anything.
The mostly Canadian supporting cast is uniformly strong: tenor Frédéric Antoun’s Narraboth opposite mezzo Carolyn Sproule’s page; tenors Owen McCausland, Michael Colvin, Jacques Arsenault, Adam Luther and bass-baritone Giles Tomkins make a comical quintet of Jews arguing about who John the Baptist really is. The remaining roles, consisting mostly of former and current COC Ensemble members, are all up to mark.
Strauss’ score is full of lush lyricism pierced with moments of dissonance, and the COC orchestra deftly brings the complex textures to life under the baton of music director Johannes Debus.
Renowned Canadian filmmaker and director Atom Egoyan is known for his unconventional approaches to the cinema, and this opera is no exception. This is his fourth staging of Salome at the COC since 1996. Although it is known that Egoyan’s lens focuses on how Salome’s childhood trauma shapes her dysfunctional character, his film footages depicting a spa in the opening scene, and images of Salome’s childhood and implied sexual assault in adulthood during the Dance of the Seven Veils are incongruent and metaphorically confounding. As a result, the (in)famous dance seems too underwhelming to raise Herod’s blood pressure.
The choice of costumes is equally bewildering. Whereas members of the supporting cast are dressed in military and medical attire, the leads are garbed in nightgowns. Poor Salome seems oddly out of place clad scantily in a bathing suit, and her flimsy night dress does not befit her character.
Salome is opera at its most intense. In this COC revival, the staging may still be controversial, but the singing is irrefutably top-notch.
Canadian Opera Company presents Salome at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on February 3, 5, 9, 11, 17, 19 and 24, 2023. www.coc.ca