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Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, September 2009

The DVD case warns that this film ‘contains scenes of nudity and violence’, as well it may, for this is the infamous Peter Hall production of Salome where Maria Ewing bares all at the climax of her Dance of the Seven Veils. This undoubtedly gives the DVD a unique selling point, but in truth there are many far better reasons to acquire this film as it’s one of the most successful Salomes I’ve seen.

The production values are as resolutely traditional as you could imagine in this opera. The sets and costumes place us firmly in first century Palestine and the stage directions are absolutely faithful to Wilde/Lachmann’s instructions: Salome really does discard seven veils during her dance, Jokanaan’s head really is delivered by ‘a huge black arm rising from the cistern,’ and at the end Salome is crushed beneath the soldiers’ shields. That said, this is Biblical Judaea clearly seen through the eyes of the fin-de-siècle: there are suggestions of Klimt in the curtain that leads to the banqueting Hall and Jokanaan’s pale body and raven hair is clearly influenced by the pictures of Aubrey Beardsley. There is, however, no ‘concept’ to distract from the power of the story and in fact this renders the action even more immediate as it brings one closer to the action as Wilde and Strauss imagined it and this lends it undeniable power.

On top of this ‘safe’ production style come performances of uncompromising power, not lease the astonishing central portrayal by Maria Ewing. I have never seen as rounded a portrayal of Salome as hers: she seems to get thoroughly inside the character’s depraved psychology and reveals every shocking aspect to the audience. From the moment she steps onto the stage she is utterly magnetic: she looks girlish but her eyes and body reveal a cunning and worldly knowledge that drives her from Herod’s banquet to her obsession with Jokanaan. Her gestures and control of the shape of her body show that she exploits her sexual power right from the off: poor Narraboth, played with ardent passion by Robin Leggate, never stands a chance and his suicide is, for once, one of the most moving moments in the piece. Vocally speaking Ewing is every bit as strong. She reaches every note in the character’s huge range and has plenty of power left for the depraved eulogy of the final scene. Furthermore she is a powerful vocal actress: plenty of vocal touches enrich her understanding of the character, such as her slurred phrases when she describes Jokanaan’s body, suggesting her distracted obsession, or the flirtatious way that she reminds Herod of the seriousness of his oath. In short, she understands and brings to fruition much more of the character than Nadja Michaels (Opus Arte and TDK) or Catherine Malfitano (Decca) and her portrayal is as close to perfect as I’ve come across.

The other roles are just as well done. Kenneth Riegel’s Herod is a depraved lunatic, lunging across the stage for his moments of madness and enslaved by his passion for his stepdaughter. Importantly, he never barks or gives in to the temptation to shout: his portrayal is thoroughly musical and is all the more powerful for that. He even manages to evoke some sympathy during the section when he begs Salome to reconsider. Next to him Gillian Knight is a thoroughly malicious Herodias, but her commanding vocal presence and imperious singing remind us that this is indeed a woman of royal blood. Michael Devlin’s Jokanaan sounds rich and authoritative and at times a little gruff, but this is entirely in keeping with the fact that his character has spent weeks living in the cistern. Impressively he does the whole opera in nothing more than a loin cloth and a tremendous wig, making him all the more convincing a part of Hall’s specific vision of the piece. The guards and Jews are very well sung, and the small role of Herodias’ page is taken very movingly by Fiona Kimm. The late, lamented Edward Downes conducts a powerhouse reading from the pit and the Covent Garden Orchestra surpass themselves in their playing. The only complaint is that the PCM Stereo sounds is rather boxy, leading to some inevitable loss in orchestral detail, a shame in this most finely observed of Strauss’s scores.

Three cheers for this Salome, then. It may not have the big ideas of McVicar’s recent staging but if you’re looking for a traditional production that is excellently sung then, on DVD at least, this could well be your first choice.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

The disc arrived the same day as we learned of the death of Sir Edward Downes, bringing an unscheduled tribute to one of the great British conductors of the 20th century. Never seeking self-glorification, he was, in every sense of the word, a complete musician. International recognition came both in the concert hall and in the orchestra pit, this 1992 video of Richard Strauss’s Salome coming from the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. From the outset it is a highly charged, his attention to inner textures bringing countless nuances that usually go missing. Though never pandering to singers, few conductors would have risked this slow unfolding of Maria Ewing’s final passion for the head of Jokanaan. Her view of Salome is of a petulant and spoilt teenager who, as the Princess, can have anything she wants, particularly as her stepfather lusts after her. The voice is big and ample for the role, one minute all energy and then sexually slinky while she tries to seduce the prophet, Jokanaan. She has a slim and young figure and takes the Dance of Seven Veils with her body writhing in sexuality as final veil is thrown aside to reveal a totally naked body. It would have sent the real Herod into a state of excitement, and in Kenneth Riegel, we see a crazed person offering anything rather than Jokanaan’s head, much of his frantic response heightened by Downes’ urgent tempos. Michael Devlin makes an imposing entrance as the doomed man, then goes off the boil, only to end up with a awesome denunciation of Salome. Gillian Knight’s Herrodias avoids histrionics when encouraging her daughter’s desires, but Robin Leggate’s Narraboth never engenders our sympathy for his plight. The remaining parts are taken by Covent Garden’s stalwart character singers; the orchestra play superbly, and this highly traditional production by Peter Hall is an object lesson in the finer art of direction. Technically the filming is impeccable in capturing the contrast between opulence and Jokanaan’s gloomy abode.The sound is about as good as we can expect in the foreseeable future and I recommend this as the best opera video I have seen this year by a large margin.






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6:13:09 PM, 19 September 2014
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