Opera Australia: Salome review

Opera Australia completes a (quite possibly unintentional) trilogy of blood spattered mad women with the immensely satisfying new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome.

Cheryl Barker as Salome, John Pickering as Herod Opera Australia SALOME

If the Spring Season is indeed viewed as a trilogy, it is characterised by three towering performances by the most uniformly strong set of soprano singing actresses seen for many a year. Cheryl Barker as Salome joins Emma Matthews as Lucia and Hiromi Omura as Cio Cio San to bless Melbourne audiences with the kind of consistent level of star power you would be lucky to see at the Met.

Director Gale Edwards follows up her deliciously decadent 2011 production of La Boheme with this blood spattered, thought-provoking staging. The brilliant insight and attention to detail of Edwards and team prove that it is possible to enhance rather than upset an opera by altering its time and setting. Fast proving herself the master of this practice, the prospect of seeing what Edwards will do with Carmen, 2013’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, just became even more tantalising.

With no overture, the rise of curtain thrusts the audience immediately into the lascivious court of King Herod, giving the palpable sense that we have joined a banquet in progress rather than watching a set of actors who have just commenced a performance. Highly purposeful ensemble acting is another hallmark of the quality of Edwards’ direction.

Thomas Hall as Jokanaan, Cheryl Barker as Salome Opera Australia SALOME

The ultimate success of this staging lies in the clear collaboration of all contributing artists. Brian Thomson’s gore splattered, multilevel set creates a literal den of depravity. Julie Lynch’s costumes successfully mix period and style. John Rayment’s masterful lighting design bathes the entire space in blood and yet pinpoints all leads in pristine white light.

The designers appear to have poised the question: ‘what would an extravagant biblical setting look like with access to modern materials?’ Plastic shields, camouflage fatigues and machine gun bullets adorn soldiers while Herod gads about like King Midas in an all gold suit. A rear wall of slaughtered animal carcasses awaits consumption at the ongoing feast as cringing servants wait on every whim with almost telepathic powers. An underground dungeon lies in close proximity to the dining hall in an area so dark and bloody that the dead body of Narraboth quite believably lies unnoticed as slaves and soldiers continue their duties. Clerical figures at the banquet are denoted by religious garb that would come centuries later, and mother and daughter Herodias and Salome are matched in gleaming metallic prints and vicious horn-like hairstyles.

John Pickering as Herod, Cheryl Barker as Salome, Jacqueline Dark as Herodias Opera Australia's SALOME

The pinnacle of this collaboration, expanded to include highly experienced choreographer Kelley Abbey, is the infamous dance of the seven veils. Without giving too much away, Edwards and team have made brilliant use of the sequence as a deconstruction of a range of female ‘types’ perennially used to titillate men and potentially disempower women.

Maestro Simon Hewett commands an expert performance from Orchestra Victoria, coaxing particular power from the brass players. As evocative as a modern film score, the beauty of Strauss’ music is especially apparent during both the emergence and re-entry of John the Baptist from his underground cell.

The recent infrequency of Barker’s Melbourne appearances makes this magnificent achievement even more vital to see. In full command of her tremendously significant powers, Barker sings the score as if it was written expressly for her, with the beauty of her soprano also matched by her acting talent. In a riveting performance, Barker skillfully portrays a young woman changing from playful to petulant as she quickly realises the influence of her burgeoning sexuality. Barker’s final scene on stage alone with the frighteningly realistic severed head of John the Baptist is a tour de force of the highest order.

Cheryl Barker as Salome, Thomas Hall as Jokanaan, Opera Australia SALOME

With only a relatively short time actually on stage, Thomas Hall effectively conveys the noble and charismatic character of Jokanaan (John The Baptist). As Jokanaan indignantly rebuffs the immature and unwelcome advances of Salome his fate is sealed. Hall’s baritone is superb, with the powerful lower end of his register used to great effect.

Australian born tenor John Pickering returns to make his OA debut as Herod, lustful king who realises too late the implications of his indulgence of his stepdaughter Salome. Pickering’s voice remains high and clear, and his acting talents round out a rather compelling characterisation.

OA favourite Jacqueline Dark makes a welcome return from maternity leave to play the monstrous Herodias, If Dark’s Katisha was bloodthirsty, her Herodias is practically demonic, writhing as if in physical pain as she vacillates between pride and horror in her daughter Salome’s actions. Appearing in a getup that would be beyond Madonna’s imagination, Dark contrasts the ugliness of Herodias’ actions with the warm beauty of her increasingly powerful mezzo-soprano voice.

Supporting artists are uniformly strong, with standouts including David Corcoran’s highly focused, all too brief performance as Narraboth, Sian Pendry’s physicalisation of the ominous fears of the Page, and Kanen Breen’s reliably fine work as First Jew. All expertly sung, of course.

Fans of the safe, popular, chocolate box style opera repertoire are strongly encouraged to take a walk on the wild side with Salome.

Cheryl Barker as Salome Opera Australia's SALOME

Salome continues at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 15 December 2012.

Photos: Jeff Busby

This review published on Theatre People 2 December 2012.

Categories: Opera, Reviews

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10 replies »

  1. Siggy checking in here.

    So I’ve seen all of the productions so far this year at The Met except I haven’t yet seen Don Giovanni which only recently opened (they’ve done 11 productions so far). I’m looking forward to Troyens which opens next week. I don’t think they’ve done it in a decade or so

    I thought Un Ballo in Mashera had a very good cast to my ears (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Marcelo Alvarez and Sondra Radvanovsky). People seemed not to like the new set but I realize now that anytime they change the set at The Met a few longtime audience members die. Or maybe it’s Tinkerbell that dies. I forget.

    • Hahaha that is fabulous Siggy, and too true. The old Ballo set was hideous, all boring baby-blue walls (yawn), and what a cast in the new production! Your ears do not deceive you!
      Speaking of dull, the new Don Giovanni, which opened last season with the fabulous Marius Kwieceien, was incredibly dull. I say don’t bother with it this season.
      Meanwhile, I’ll be there in late March for 4 productions – Otello, Giulio Cesare, La Traviata with Domingo as Giorgio Germont and Faust – can’t wait!
      Simon 🙂

  2. I liked Otello though I remember a strange thing (at least I thought it strange. I saw it opening night and at intermission some Met rep came out an announced to the audience that the lead (Otello), I’d have to look up the name, wasn’t feeling well “but was willing to come out for Act 2” and then, if I recall accurately, some words to the effect that he hopes you’ll understand. I suppose some attempt to lower expectations but it was just strange.

    I thought he sounded just fine when he came back.

    The NYT gave a poor review to Don G.

    I’m looking forward to Rigoletto early next year I think it is. A 1960s Vegas setting. As far as I’m concerned they can reset all of their operas in Vegas — at least for a season.

    • Well that is odd about Otello. You’d think they would only do that if the lead actually couldn’t continue. Meanwhile, I think they have moved on to the B cast (at best) by the time I see it in late March. Renee Fleming is certainly no longer in it by then. Hope you enjoyed seeing her!

      That Rigoletto sounds amazing. I already love that one but a clever production will be all the better. Luckily I will be able to see it at the cinema here in Melbourne.

      You go to so many operas that you should start your own blog. Posts on Met operas are very popular!


  3. I did see Don G and I thought it fine. I also saw Troyens opening night and they did that little speech again before the show where they tell you so and so (I don’t even remember which part it was but one of the principal roles ) has a cold but “he’s willing to perform but we hope you’ll be understanding.” If you’re sick then let the understudy take a crack at it or go out and do your best but stop trying to lower expectations before the show has even begun.

    Wow that was a long show. Over 5 hours. Not exactly a packed house in the Grand Tier or the Orchestra either. By the last part I had a nice chunk of seats in the Grand Tier to stretch out in. Very comfortable. So I enjoyed it that much more.

    Blog ? I have nothing particularly interesting or insightful to say about Opera. I can give you a good insight into the crowd on a particular night and whether I personally liked it or not but that is about it. Hardly worth another blog. This idea that everyone and anyone should blog their life makes no sense to me. If what I say is boring offline sending it out to the world doesn’t make it any more compelling. In fact, it further pollutes the internet which consists almost entirely of verbal pollution already.

    • Hi Siggy, Glad to hear you enjoyed Don Giovanni. New cds of full opera recordings are rare these days but a few weeks ago I bought a new Don Giovanni featuring Diana Damrau and Joyce di Donato, who are often seen at the Met. Beautiful music.

      I see what you mean about the pointlessness of that pre-curtain announcement. I can’t even see why they agree to do it. Particularly since most singers are always going to say they have a little cold or a touch of a sore throat. Maybe Peter Gelb will put his foot down about this soon if he gets tired of making those announcements!

      Wow Les Troyens sounds quite epic. I will have the chance to see it in the cinema here but 5 hours seems a bit much for a cinema viewing. The pictures look fairly spectacular and it sounds like you enjoyed it so I might give it a go.

      Our local opera company, Opera Australia, finished their current opera season in Melbourne this weekend. Believe it or not, that means I don’t really have the chance to see live opera again until I come to the Met in 3.5 months. Meanwhile, at least I can see the Met’s La Clemenza di Tito, Un Ballo in Maschera and Aida in the cinema over the next few weeks. Hope you approve of all of these choices.

      Sorry if I offended with the suggestion of a blog. It’s just that you have ongoing access to one of the world’s great cultural institutions. My Met reviews from April/May this year have been the most popular items on my blog. The La Traviata review is #1 and is about 1000 hits higher than the next entry. Manon and The Ring Cycle reviews are also still very popular. I love hearing what you think about the productions so please keep sharing.

      Happy Holidays,


      • No, you didn’t offend me at all. Sorry if I came off that way. I meant only that while I go I don’t really know much about it. It’s not unusual for me to find someone I’m chatting with to have been attending for 30 + years. I still can’t identify most of the performers let alone critique them in any way meaningful to someone that is into opera. Maybe I will blog for the opera no-nothings such as myself. Or perhaps I’ll take some photos. People might like that. They don’t seem to mind photos at the curtain call time at the end of the show though obviously not during the show.

        Not sure I liked Troyens. It liked my seat. I do appreciate the scale of the production. (NYT gave it a favorable review and that guy doesn’t like much). It was to my eyes/ears very much chorus driven. I might try it again. Sometimes whether you like it is as much a function of your own mood as the production.

        I will try to catch the new Barber this week and keep my streak going. I’ve seen all the productions this season so far.


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