Strauss - Salome

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday February 5 2012.

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Production: Guy Joosten. Sets: Martin Zehetgruber. Costumes: Heide Kastler. Lighting: Manfred Voss. Video: Claudio Pazienza. Herodes: Chris Merritt. Herodias: Doris Soffel. Salome: Nicola Beller Carbone. Jochanaan: Scott Hendricks. Narraboth: Gordon Gietz. Ein Page der Herodias: Susanne Kreusch. Juden: Alasdair Elliott, Yves Saelens, Johannes Preissinger, Alexandre Kravets, Guillaume Antoine. Nazarener: Frode Olsen, Donal J. Byrne. Soldaten: Tijl Faveyts, Patrick Schramm. Ein Kappadozier: Julian Hubbard. Ein Sklave: Marc Coulon. La Monnaie orchestra.

Anyone who’s as fond of Strauss as I am will understand if I say that a disappointing Salome is a particular disappointment. I’ve been scratching my head a bit since yesterday’s performance in Brussels, unable quite to pin down the problem. In the end, I think it was the production. Joosten set it in a monstrously vulgar TV/cinema-inspired world of parvenus, celebrating Herod’s birthday (or whatever) in the bullet-holed shell of a palace, with furniture piled up to one side, plaster missing from the ceiling and floorboards missing from the floor, allowing light to shine through when John was singing from below. The palace guards were our by now old friends, not soldiers in fatigues or neo-Nazis in long coats (who seem to have gone out of fashion), but the others: men in black suits and white shirts with narrow black ties and sunglasses, running round to little effect with pistols and automatic rifles in their hands and aiming frenetically at Jochanaan every time he appeared, nonchalant and unperturbed.

Unusually, there was a curtain between the opening scenes, in which we could just see the dining room in the background, and the feast proper, taking place in a makeshift space with plywood floors and polythene walls – but also one gigantic chandelier. Herod, in open-necked dinner wear, and Herodias, in a spangled red evening dress slit up to the thigh and Ivana Trump hair, entertained their multi-denominational but not very ecumenical guests (there was a Catholic priest and a protestant vicar as well as the five Jews) at a long table arranged without a doubt to recall the Last Supper.

Herod paid no attention whatsoever to the squabbling Jews; he was busy filming Salome while rubbing his crutch. This prepared us for the central, potentially horrific idea: instead of dancing for him, Salome, having crawled under the table to goose a few guests, emerged with a video cassette. Guards held up a screen and we saw a film of the young Salome, apparently made by home-movie enthusiast Herod himself (we saw his heavily-beringed hand) and ending, we supposed (by this time, the projector had been turned on the audience) in incestuous paedophilia, much to the glee of the Catholic priest, and to the fidgety and at least feigned indifference of Herod himself. All, as I say, potentially horrific. But the (meticulously directed) acting was grand guignol, with Herod as Punch and Herodias as Judy, verging on slapstick: one of the Jews actually even took to throwing pies. This undermined the work, depriving it of any of the considerable emotional effect, whether dramatic or musical, it should have: shock, horror, awe or just plain Schmaltz

Nicola Beller Carbone is a very remarkable soprano. She has film-star looks, a fashion-model figure and endless legs; but she also has a powerful voice with effortless top notes and an interesting timbre, edgy – almost shrill - but with darkish undertones. It seemed to me, nitpicking as usual, that she was possibly one size too small for Salome (or Marietta, another of her roles). But surely we could still have been wowed if only she’d been either wicked or vulnerable or a bit of each. Here she looked, as La Libre Belgique very neatly put it, like a slightly squiffy high-society girl looking for cheap thrills. So much, in the circs, for her final scene.

Even on her back with her legs in the air, displaying her black tights up to the crutch, Doris Soffel was an impressive Herodias, at one point letting off a most amazingly long, loud note, as if to outdo Caballé at the end of Don Carlos. Chris Merritt was in good voice, any defects (and there were far fewer than he is at times capable of) corresponding perfectly with his vile (fictional) character. Scott Hendricks, already impressive in Macbeth in the same house, made an unusually bright, clear Jochanaan. In his case, the character was undermined by his apparent reasonableness in such a household, like George Clooney walking into a Nespresso shop taken over by Catwoman and The Joker.

Even if the Brussels players were on pretty pedestrian form under Rizzi, they weren’t as bad as at least one reviewer claimed, and this was a very good cast; but the lukewarm applause – which Merritt appeared, having cupped a hand to his ear, to comment on to Soffel – showed that I wasn’t alone in wishing we’d had, despite the all-out, strobe-lit massacre that accompanied Jochanaan’s beheading, a more harrowingly dramatic show.

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