Review: Egoyan's Salome — Gruesome, thrilling, and a great orchestra Special

Posted Apr 25, 2013 by Cate Kustanczy
Richard Strauss' 1905 opera 'Salome' has all the elements of great opera: intense drama, a soaring score, challenging vocal lines. The current Toronto production, directed by Atom Egoyan, adds a modern twist.
(l – r) Hanna Schwarz as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome in the Canadian Opera Company’...
(l – r) Hanna Schwarz as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013.
Michael Cooper
While it's an interpretation lovers of the original tale may question, it also provides a clear narrative for newcomers to both the story and Strauss' intense, atonal score, providing character motivations and a certain depth that makes for a riveting piece of theater.
Somewhat of a revival of the Canadian Opera Company’s 1996 and 2002 presentations (also directed by Egoyan), the opera is based on the Oscar Wilde play that revolves around the biblical story of the Princess Salome, who demands the head of John the Baptist (here in the opera, called Jochanaan) in return for dancing for her stepfather, the corrupt Herod. Much to his wife's dismay, the ruler openly lusts after her daughter. The opera received a rapturous reception at its 1905 premiere, inspiring no less than thirty-eight curtain calls, though it was also considered scandalous, and banned in London for a time. The opera is on now through May 22nd at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.
With a expressionist-style set design by Derek McLane and dramatic lighting by Michael Whitfield, Egoyan places the world of Salome in an abstract sci-fi-meets-Weimar-Republic netherworld, where surveillance is a key component of existence. The act of looking -of looking at, particularly -is as much a political as it is a socio-sexual act. Narraboth (Nathaniel Peake) is looked at by The Page of Herodias (Maya Lahyani), who does not return her gaze; Salome (Erika Sunnegårdh) does not return the gaze of either Narraboth or Herod (Richard Margison), and Jochanaan (Martin Gantner) will not look at Salome, even as she entreats him to, extolling the wonders of his features. The video-feed close-up of Jochanaan's mouth as he proclaims damnation and heralds the arrival of Jesus is chilling, thrilling, gross and erotic - in other words, everything the opera is, or should be.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome  2013.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013.
Chris Hutcheson
Egoyan attempts to get at the psychology behind Salome's actions, hinting at a childhood filled with violence and abuse (mainly sexual in nature) through images projected along a huge scrim (that is, quite literally, seven veils) during the famous orchestral section where Salome shakes her fine thing in order to get her prize. Clea Minaker's intriguing, beautiful shadow play (new to the production), along with projections designer Phillip Barker's abstract video (featuring the work of acclaimed photographer Edward Burtynsky) provide a background of Salome's past, giving a psychological depth that other interpretations have skipped over. The shadow work, along with the choreography of Serge Bennathan and dancer Linnea Swan's fluid, sexy interpretation, lends an element of fin-de-siecle wonder to the proceedings. Though the technique is simple, the effect is awesome.
What's problematic here is that by giving Salome a literal history, Egoyan lessens the piece's impact mythologically. To my mind, Salome isn't supposed to be a "realistic" opera, with "realistic" characters; it is, rather, a heavily mythologized piece, its biblical roots containing strong echoes of ancient influences (I've always thought of the Eastern Kali and Durga, the Celtic Sheela-na-Gig, and the Norse Freya, when I think of Salome herself) that draw heavily on classical archetypes and examine issues of sex and power, and the simmering relationships therein. Professor, author, and translator Rainer Kohlmeyer has noted that, "The play Salomé is a refutation of the Bible. It is an ironic, anti−Christian interpretation of the great turning point of history: the ancient world of love is destroyed, and terror in the name of the Christian God begins its reign." Such a view could well apply to Strauss' opera as well. Moreso, that the wild, roaring, rebellious, sexy spirit of Salome occupies the body of a young girl (a princess, a daughter -positions associated with innocence and purity), renders her desires even more unseemly, even gross. But it's also what makes her fascinating.
Hanna Schwarz (L) as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome in the Canadian Opera Company’s prod...
Hanna Schwarz (L) as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013.
Michael Cooper
Egoyan cleverly underlines the tensions between girl and woman by having Sunnegårdh hoisted up on a swing as the Dance begins, head thrown back, a smirk across her lips; it's this combination of innocence and experience, to use Blakean terms, that gives Salome its zest and energy. These inherent contradictions (creator and destroyer, lover and fighter, seductress and murderer) lead to what can only be described as an explosion of violence, which, when it finally comes, is awful, awesome, horrifying, and in this production, very realistic (bravo, COC craft team). But the opera's more gruesome elements (the decapitation; Salome's lifting the head out of its glass bowl, blood staining her white dress; her kissing the disembodied body part) are Grand Guignol-esque theatrics pointing at a murkier psychological truth about the dark roads connecting sex, power, youth, gender, and family dynamics. These are highlighted throughout the production, notably in the video work depicting a woman lying in mud, limbs barely moving; it's a simple, powerfully disturbing image that sears itself into the subconscious, providing a visual guide that reflects Egoyan's observation in the director's notes that "if one's experience of childhood has been destroyed, then one's behaviour -without intervening help -will often be destructive." The production's final image, a strangulation that hints at a patriarchal sort of reclamation of power, is an interesting summation of Egoyan's approach that, while not always eliciting universal agreement (I'll never buy Salome as a victim myself), does attempt to bust the opera out of its campy-gorefest associations and thrust it into a realm of greater relational (and psychological) congruity.
Thus has the COC provided a wonderful introduction for newcomers to the piece: by providing a rational vision of a very abstract piece, Egoyan gives the Wilde (/wild) story an approachable bent. Adding to the interpretation is Catherine Zuber's stunning costume design, which sees Herodias (a regal Hanna Schwarz) and Herod (a bullish Richard Margison) kitted out in white-and-Fanta-orange outfits, while the ring of Jews are clothed in all-white suits, with hairless pates and black-framed glasses; they're somewhere between nerdy scientists and Lex-Luther-meets-Colonel-Sanders. One might be reminded of Bond villains (or Austin Powers' Dr. Evil, even) watching their frenetic movements across the stage, a sinister presence clothed in blinding white. The simplicity of the color scheme offers a hint at the limited moral world Egoyan is portraying, and it makes for very enchanting eye-candy, even from the upper rings of the house.
For all of its impressive visual sense however, it is the sheer beauty of Strauss' awesome score, conducted with expert attention by COC Music Director Johannes Debus, that leaves the biggest impression. Debus shows a fantastically deft hand in balancing the demands of the nearly-two-hour work (Salome is performed without intermission), offering soft, sinewy reed sections gorgeously balanced with the heavy, brute force of the percussion and the pizzicato delicacy of harps. He does an equally good job in conducting the singers, who offer solid, charismatic performances that beautifully balance singing and acting. In the title role, Swedish soprano Erika Sunnegårdh is bird-like in her affectations, a playful, curious girl at odds with her woman's body and the imperious authority of her mother, performed with a deliciously angry edge by Hanna Schwarz.
Canadian tenor Richard Margison as Herod in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome  201...
Canadian tenor Richard Margison as Herod in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013.
Michael Cooper
Margison offers a compelling portrait of an desperate, obsessive ruler, bored by the power he wields and addicted to the sylph-like jailbait floating around him. The scenes between he and Sunnegårdh simmer with an awkward, dangerous tension, the tenor's bulk hulking over the soprano's slight frame as she turns away, hugging limbs and shoulders hunched. As Jochanaan, German baritone Martin Gantner is commanding and hypnotic; again, scenes between he and Sunnegårdh have a brewing, edgy tension, with Gantner, chin up and chest out, an authoritative, even fearsome presence, whose damns the decadence around him while exalting the coming of the Savior.
When it comes to setting intimate scenes, Egoyan shows an expert hand, working with the music to offer a dysfunctional family portrait full of an abuse colored by restless ennui. This is a Salome to make you think, and feel, and contemplate the big and small moments; it's up to you decide whether there's room for any heroes or victims. But you just may lose your head over that awesome orchestra.