Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I had a curious night at the opera last week, Wednesday in fact. It was Halloween, a few moons past full, and the little street where we live was busy with squealing children running up and down in search of fun and lollies.

I was still unsettled about spending so much when I'd sworn off the local product as just not value for money. There are cheap seats, but they risk not hearing, not seeing, or both. Anyway Salome is a a rare event down here, and I just wasn't prepared to miss it, despite the scaling down of things orchestral, especially when here was a chance to hear Cheryl have a bash at it. Cheryl Barker, Baz Lurhmann's once lovely innocent Mimi, is pretty good at inhabiting a character, and Princess Salome is some character.

JL was sitting directly behind with a friend who insisted that the performance was going to be fabulous, everyone had told her, and I felt she felt I should feel lucky she was telling me, in case I thought it was going to be a Viennese waltzy night, and be disappointed, as she took a similarly educative tone to that of the email the opera company sent me the week before warning me that this might not be the Strauss I had in mind when I booked. I'm serious. And then JL needed to tell me that those French people we met at dinner the previous Friday had finally left Sydney, Madame full of complaints (too hot, too cold) while Monsieur remained as charming as ever. By now I was turned completely sideways in my seat and somehow, a cold chill in the air perhaps (no beating wings yet), I was made aware that my knee was touching the leg, long and straightforward, of my neighbour and he was, not to put it too mildly, glowering at me. Apologies fell of deaf ears I fear but never mind, the lights were dimming and bigger indiscretions were about to start.

With that curly clarinet erectile motif, curtain was up and there was the set (Brian Thompson). I am a set, it said, and a big set too. It was an elevated circular platform accessed by side steps from the rear banquet table and with a very dominant convex circular staircase descending to the stage itself of which perhaps five percent remained, if that. Unless there was going to be some sitting and singing on the stairs, the main action was looking like it would be confined to 'up and back' which is not a good start in this little theatre with poor acoustics, now overstuffed with 'a set'. There was something about the proportions that was wrong, it was choking, as if it had been designed for a big theatre, or even a normal sized one. The elevated platform was about man height above the stage, about Jokanaan height actually, suggesting there was no other way to get the prophet below stage other than building it up above him. And it was dried blood red and black, all of it, presumably blood soaked from the suspended carcasses, looking more like skins drying out to be made into leather, at the rear. Oh, it's fabulous, a nod to Francis Bacon I'd heard. But better a nod to Oscar Wilde I thought. I hated it.

I wondered how fabulous the woman behind was finding things. Now not a lot happens early on, except for some poetic thoughts about the moon, and the Princess, so there was time to ponder the costumes (Julie Lynch), with neither moon nor moonlight yet to materialise (lucky I didn't hold my breath). Here were universal soldiers, in tight (ever tried getting a soldier to wear tight?) camo style gear with shoulder strap bullet holders, knives and swords not guns, overripe red shoulder padding, and all with a strange latex stretchy look, like a fetish party where the lighting would be all but nonexistent, thankfully. Salome (Cheryl Barker) was yes in white but with a very strange pointy headdress with black curls entangled in it, more medusa than virgin teen. Mother (Jacqueline Dark) I'm at a loss to describe, other than vulgar is not how I see the incestuous one who should at least be of a certain age, and her age was not helping Ms Dark's dramaturgy, risus sardonicus notwithstanding. Herod (John Pickering) was rather more straightforward though bearing no dress relationship to the forgoing, topped with a foolish gold crown which reminded me of that many-years-ago Kosky Nabucco.

Herod is no fool. A drunk surely, and impotent old lech, but nobody's fool. (Interestingly Strauss, as Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise quotes him, saw the prophet as the only ridiculous figure, an imbecile, while the whole court was more a parody of the court of Kaiser Wilhelm, admixed with both censorious prudishness and homosexual scandal). The only costume shock left was that Jokanaan (John Wegner) actually looked a bit like you expected.

Herod had, remember, managed to get all the thinking guys to dinner for a deep and meaningful about life, death and the universe. There were the regular irregular Jews, two Christian Coptic looking priests, and I swear I saw a Ghandi too.

The stage stuff everyone had been talking about, everyone knew, and it's fabulous, don't you know. Now The Baptist would let the temptress fondle his hair, his hormones stirring, despite the very fundamental tenet of the fundamentalist, not to mention the libretto, forbidding such contact. Now the dance of the seven veils would be the dance of the seven sex symbols, from Madonna (Jesus's mum, not pop star), through pole dancer, and Marilyn Monroe. The straight legged grump next to me loved the Marilyn sequence - the billowing skirt over the cistern made him chortle and shift in his seat. He moves I thought. It was entertaining and a break from staring at that set where little before had much directorial (Gale Edwards) flair but it was nonetheless a major distraction from the business at hand -  the means to an end ("I was a virgin and thou - Jokanaan - didst take my virginity away"), lust and the loss of virginity and the ambiguity of it all: the younger defiling herself so she could defile the older, just who is good and who is evil, how ungood is fundamentalist goodness, the need to tempt, to corrupt, to not consent, to consent, to consort, to want and to get, not to mention Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, who by the way translated the original French into English. A cross-dressing undressing Salome for a Wildean Herod, now that would have been fabulous.

Still, fabulousness was nigh and vocally things had been and were going much better. Narraboth was generously cast with David Corcoran, Pickering was especially effective, Wegner imposed his considerable baritone with appropriate command, Dark was hurling out mummy dearest, and Cheryl gave notice when she stood downstage, at last, and demanded thrice the head, she meant business.

And she was indeed fabulous, alone now on a bare surreal platform looking good at last. The voice I find hard to describe - its frays a little around the edges at the top which now gave it an electric adrenalised buzz. There were moments of hair raising penetrating sound, a fullness and confidence in herself that was so relevant to the woman with the head as we witnessed slack jawed one of the most god-awful private encounters ever exposed. It was, cliché warning, a brave performance, a complete surrender ending in such rapture that I think I was even more happy for her than mummy.

And then, at the climax, the kiss, the kiss, when the moon's dark cloud cover should momentarily part and reveal all to all, and so disgust Herod (who in this production had wandered off, to attend to his needs perhaps), at that chilling moment luckily in he ambles, and may as well have been doing up his fly. It made nonsense of the sudden call to kill her. But wait. We need the soldiers, the ones with the plastic see-through shields (forgot to tell you about the plastic shields). So suddenly the rear plastic scrim lifts again and Cheryl's work is so undone - the toy soldiers are back. Now you cant crush people with plastic shields, obviously. Not a good look, not with Cheryl. So they cut her throat. What were they thinking - don't they read the papers? We kill innocents and trouble makers by tazering them down here. Tazer. Tazer. Tazer.

Thump Thump Thump from the pit. Johannes Fritzsch had done a sterling job making it sound a bit thrilling at least with his limited resources and now Silence, Deadly Silence.  But, what's that Whirring Sound? - of course, the curtain is coming down.

If there's one that calls for a blackout, this is it. And while I'm at it, if there's one that calls for singing it in English, this is it. And if there's one that calls for a moon, ...


David said...

Saw La Barker as Salome at ENO. Absolutely the best I've witnessed on stage since Behrens (though Gwyneth had her moments).

wanderer said...

And I thought Denoke in Berlin had wrapped it up for me, but that's the thing with Cheryl Barker, when she gets you she doesn't let you go. That's some Salome lineage there David. The last here was Gasteen (love your shot top description; come back moves are underway here btw) with Young and it was a shocker.

Anonymous said...


A fair and detailed account if from a slightly jaded perspective.

The moon is surely not onstage or even behind the stage - otherwise how can Narraboth gaze out over us at it?

As you know, there is no room underneath the stage because the orchestra has to be there in this theatre. In previous productions I think they managed that by having the cistern off to the left and upstage so that entrances and exits could come from the back corner underneath.

wanderer said...

Jaded indeed. M I've reached the point where I doubt I'll ever see a decent venue here. A billion dollars found in sloppy budget papers, a billion dollars in a hotel and casino, on and on about the need for tourism - imagine what an opera theatre that worked properly would do for the city.

Susan Scheid said...

I wish I could go to the opera with you (and David). I would get such an education, rather than sitting there as my credulous, unknowing self. I love Strauss and would love to see/hear a good Salome. I'll be on the lookout for that. Next week marks my first opera of the season: Ades's The Tempest. Have you seen/heard it?

wanderer said...

David definitely for the opera.

Susan I've been following The Tempest (London, Santa Fe, New York - like a fashion house) on blogs and chats but yet to encounter it and when it screens here in early December everyone will be awash with Festivities and I am definitely locked out as for the two screenings I have a date with Ian Bostridge for one and The Queen of Spades for the other. Full Dance Card!

Meanwhile, here is MB's FT review if you haven't already seen it. Hope you blog on it.