From a feminist perspective, the character of Salome is seriously problematic. In Richard Strauss’s opera, based on Oscar Wilde’s play, she’s a two-dimensional figure, the prototype femme fatale, more object than subject. How to give her a modicum of complexity? Australian director Adena Jacobs, making her UK debut with a new Salome at English National Opera, grapples with this problem throughout a visually intriguing but decidedly peculiar production of Strauss’s one-act opera.
As the unnamed ‘daughter of Herodias’ in the Bible, Salome is forced by her mother to dance for her lustful stepfather, Herod, for the reward of John the Baptist’s head on a silver plate.
By the 19th century, Salome came to embody the eternal feminine, and it is her own unfathomable desire for the prophet that leads her to the famous dance of the seven veils. Wilde put her on stage in 1896 and Strauss merged the decadent story with his glorious, lush music (excellently played here by the ENO orchestra under the direction of Martyn Brabbins) in 1905.
The highly stylised ENO season-opener is set firmly in our own time. The contemporary visual references come fast and furious, from the twerking of the pony-tailed, Miley Cyrus-like dancers (energetically choreographed by Melanie Lane) to the appearance of a gigantic, eviscerated and headless My Little Pony filled with flowers.
When we first meet Salome (Allison Cook), she looks like Paris Hilton, fiddling with her long blonde hair as she is adored by her fans, including a nervous Narraboth (Stuart Jackson). She uses his devotion to gain access to the imprisoned John the Baptist (a strongly voiced David Soar), whose booming condemnations of Herodias from his underground jail echo throughout Herod’s palace.
Salome meets the Baptist, Jokanaan, who is wearing a loincloth and, less expectedly, pink high heels. He also is bedecked with an awkward camera device on his face; the resulting live video of his mouth is projected on a screen at the back of the stage. This video gives vivid illustration of the by-now-orgasmic Salome’s impassioned cry, “It’s your mouth I desire, Jokanaan!”
Cook is an excellent actor, who does her best to adhere to the prescribed character arc from sullen celebrity to disheveled lover to androgynous, dead-eyed madwoman with mascara running down her face. However, the strain of carrying the opera’s emotional weight (even though she is largely relieved of dancing, thanks to Team Twerk) begins to tell. She gets some motherly solidarity from Susan Bickley as Herodias and needless distraction from Michael Colvin as Herod, jumping and slipping on the blood-soaked stage.
How do you solve a problem like Salome? The answer is not found in this production, despite its plentitude of ideas, including an unexpected twist at the end.