Salome in Amsterdam

Until yesterday evening I had not experienced a wholly satisfying performance of Salome. The problem is, I think, that directors and designers have tended to take too literal an approach to the setting of the opera: Herod portrayed as a leering lecher and Herodias an ageing floozy in a Judean court replete with luxury and gluttony. Usually accompanied by too much clutter and eye-catching movement on the stage, these features typically distract from the central themes of the piece and impede efforts to get those themes to cohere.

At Amsterdam, Ivo van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld opt most happily for simplicity and abstraction. They use a divided stage: in front, a bare performing area; behind, an opening in the wall half concealing a richly decorated salon. When the characters leave the “social world” of that salon, they enter, and have to come to terms with, their own inner world. It is here that the young and innocent, but uninhibited, Salome seeks a resolution for her desires: to escape the corrupt, claustrophobic and meaningless world of her mother and step-father for something wholesome and spiritual. Her fascination with Jochanaan lies partly in his epitomising these qualities but also in her awakening sexuality responding to his masculine strength and iconoclastic rejection of the “social world”. In him she sees an Absolute.

In Malin Byström’s extraordinary assumption of the role, Salome’s eyes are forever focusing on the distance, far away from the reality of the Christian prophet. Her dance becomes an attempt to seduce him; in her imagination -revealed in a video projected at the back of the stage – her naked body intertwines with his. His rejection of her necessarily leads to tragedy for she has to possess the unobtainable. As the climax in this powerful staging is reached, the whiteness of Salome’s innocence become sullied by Jochanaan’s blood as she embraces his dying body (far more effective this than having her kiss a fake severed head). So also any relieving lightness is eclipsed as darkness descends and Herod’s “social world” disintegrates.

For the musical contribution, what a joy to have the glorious sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit! Daniele Gatti’s lyrical interpretation of the score may have surprised some but I found it most convincing since the restraint enabled the orchestral timbres to emerge more clearly, especially as images of nature were painted musically. It also allowed the moments of tension to mount, thus augmenting the power of the climax when it arrived.

Byström’s vocal qualities fully complemented her dramatic skills. The purity of tone was fully maintained as she moved from innocent musings through awakening desire to exultant passion; and yet there was also colour enough for embellishing some ironic, discordant phrases when the text demanded it. Lance Ryan was, as Herod, appropriately a vacillating weakling, scaling down his tenor to insinuating utterances. In contrast, veteran mezzo Doris Soffel, in an immaculate green suit, unrelentingly commanded the stage. Attilio Glaser was the mellifluous Narraboth. Evgeny Nikitin as Jochanaan, was the only disappointment in the cast, having neither the haunting presence nor the heroic baritone required for the role.

But back to the essence of the matter. This was, at last, a Salome to treasure.