Darkness surrounds the illuminated young princess Salome, played by Canadian soprano Ambur Braid, as the angel of death’s wings clash blisteringly overhead. The sound of voices objectifying and sexualizing her pierce the darkness. But when John the Baptist (Jochanaan, played by Nicholas Brownlee) roars in the distance prophesying the Messiah and, more importantly, condemning the sexual transgressions of Queen Herodias, Salome’s mother, Salome becomes energized, hopping and clapping like a child on Christmas morning.
Her pouty, down-turned lips and lusty promises convince Narraboth, her keeper, to bring the prophet Jochanaan to her. He’s dragged out in shackles, pale, sunken, filthy with dirt and sweat, yet Salome again bursts with excitement. She’s like a child who, finding a stray puppy, mercilessly begs her parents to let her have it. She treats the prophet first as a curiosity, then as a play thing, and finally as an object of jumbled adolescent sexual desire.
Jochanaan is afraid of Salome in the way an inexperienced pre-teen boy might be afraid of an eager and interested young girl. His dense prophesying seems more like a defense mechanism to hide hormone-fueled shame. He blushes and shrivels when Salome showers him with desire and lashes out with petty if intricately formulated insults when her attention overwhelms him. Salome and Jochanaan’s relationship is surprisingly relatable given the outrageous circumstances; a twisted version of horny, sexually awkward, socially isolated pre-teens in love.
But their relationship cannot progress. Herod, Salome’s stepfather, sexualizes his stepdaughter and wants her as his own. A.J. Glueckert, as Herod, frenetically and frettingly hops around Salome monitoring her every twitch. When the time comes for her to satisfy him, perhaps she’ll be too numb from his helicoptering to say no. Salome’s mother, Herod’s wife, hardly reacts to her husband’s incestual, pedophilic desires. The couple is uptight in a waspy sort of way, tight-lipped, stern and deeply neglectful of Salome.
Ultimately, the princess cracks and agrees to dance for Herod in return for whatever she wants. Salome does not dance (few Salomes do in modern productions). Rather, she sits alone on the floor with her legs splayed like a ragdoll, and pulls a continuous, thick, golden rope of hair from her vagina like a clown pulling a line of handkerchiefs from his sleeve. First she seems curious. The lock resembles Jochanaan’s hair in colour and texture. She continues to pull. The hair piles in front of her. What first intrigues her now frightens her as she wonders when the discharge will cease. She seems to be yanking out her guts, her desire, her pubescence. Herod approaches and the strands end. He lifts the pile and nonchalantly wraps it around his neck like an infinity scarf and goes right back to badgering her.
In return for her ‘dance’, Salome asks for Jochanaan’s giant, bloated head, which descends to her from the ceiling on a meat hook. She fondles it and makes out with it, biting its lip furiously. And then in her bloodthirsty glee she gives it a whack like a tether ball. As it swings back she lands another impetuous thwap. Eventually, she lifts the head defiantly and lowers it onto her own. This seems to be the only way to take control of the psychotic mix of desire and death thrust upon her by her corrupted youth.
None of the action in this production would matter much if not for a collection of well-cast, excellent singers. Tenor Brian Michael Moore as Narraboth has a lively, attractive, well-balanced sound. Both Braid and Glueckert seem entirely comfortable in their respective roles and have no trouble with Strauss’s notoriously difficult score.
The title role has been a watershed for Braid, using the production’s early 2020 pandemic-interrupted premiere both to debut as Salome and to successfully transition into a more dramatic soprano repertoire. She has a sizable instrument with an explosive top. Consequently, she easily cuts through Strauss’s denser orchestral writing and can erupt with climactic high notes when the moment calls for it.
Nicholas Brownlee sings Jochanaan like he has something to prove, which he does as a young bass-baritone in this iconic part. The role requires a honking voice and expert breath management to sustain the character’s long, barely contoured yet wide-ranging phrases. Thankfully Brownlee has a steam engine in his throat and knows how to calibrate it. He thrills in the role.
The show is short by operatic standards and without intermission. It makes for a compact evening of engaging opera with just enough provocation to convince the audience they’re seeing art.
Oper Frankfurt’s Salome runs until Nov 7, tickets and details available here.
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