Salome has no more than a bit part in the Bible, and doesn’t even merit a name-check in the two accounts of her demanding the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Neither Matthew nor Mark identifies her as more than the “daughter of Herodias”; it took a later historian, Josephus, to pin her down.
But her post-biblical life has been extensively – not to say luridly – imagined, in paintings, in Oscar Wilde, and in the opera Salome that Richard Strauss based on the Wilde play. When it premiered in 1905 it caused the kind of scandal music history loves to chronicle. And scandal was exactly what the composer was after in a score of provocative sensuality that made his name.
So it’s unsurprising that productions of the piece have, even since, set out to shock: you might describe their efforts as ‘authentic’. But shock-value wears thin over a hundred years, in the course of which attempts to keep the outrage burning can get desperate. And I’ve rarely seen so desperate an attempt at generating outrage than the wretched Salome that launched the latest English National Opera season.
Billed by ENO as a “questioning of conventional patriarchal attitudes”, it involved an all-female production team led by a director, Adina Jacobs, who had never worked in opera before. And that much came across in a production of crass incompetence that regularly felt as though it was about to fall apart.
But even worse than the technical failings was the smugness with which the staging seemed perpetually to congratulate itself on being edgy, dangerous, bravely confronting “issues of today” … when it was nothing of the sort.
The nearest it came to an idea (though not an original one) was in presenting Salome as a sexualised child: hence the My Little Pony, surrounded by blood, which ENO used as a tasteless poster image for the show. But the pornography that framed this idea had nothing meaningful to say about Salome’s predicament, about patriarchy, or about anything except the extent to which ENO’s current management is artistically adrift.
With the notable exception of Susan Bickley as Herodias, most of the singers were miscast, struggling through music for which they hadn’t the vocal capacity. Allison Cook in the title role was thin and shrill. And while Michael Colvin’s Herod had the notes, his Father Christmas outfit (don’t ask) lent him little credibility.
You could only feel sorry for conductor Martyn Brabbins doing his best in the pit. But it wasn’t enough to redeem an evening for which heads should roll.
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