Thursday, October 18, 2012


By Richard StrausS
Opera Australia: Sydney Opera House until 3rd November 2012
Arts Centre Melbourne from 1st December 2012

Performance on 16th October reviewed by Bill Stephens

Cheryl Barker as Salome - John Wegner as Jokanaan (John the Baptist)
Photo Branco Gaica

“A typical Gale Edwards production” murmurs a critic colleague as the lights come up following the ecstatic audience response. “Which is why we keep coming back” I reply, because Gale Edwards never fails to surprise and engage her audience, and while some of her productions may be controversial, they are never boring. 

This mesmerising production of the most controversial of the Richard Strauss operas grabs your attention from the very opening moments of Strauss’s disturbingly expressive score, at this performance given a superb reading by the Australian Opera and Ballet conducted by Johannes Fritsch.  

Salome (Cheryl Barker) is discovered, obviously bored with her step-father Herod’s (John Pickering)  banquet which is taking place upstage on Brian Thomson’s striking red blood-spattered set, in front of a row beef carcases.  
Guards peering into the cistern containing Jokanaan
Photo: Branco Gaica

Watching Salome’s every move is a young Syrian Captain, Narraboth (David Corcoran).  The booming voice of the prophet, Jokanaan (John the Baptist) played by John Wegner, is heard from an underground cistern where he has been imprisoned by Herod, and when Salome hears this voice she is fascinated and seduces Narraboth into opening the cistern.

David Corcoran (Narraboth) Sian Pendry (Page to Herodias)
Salome (Cheryl Barker) in background
Photo: Branco Gaica

Narraboth suicides, and when Jokanaan emerges from the cistern, he curses Herod and his decadent wife, Herodias (Jacqueline Dark) and resists Salome’s overt attempts to seduce him.  Inflamed by his rejection Salome becomes more and more obsessed with the prisoner, so that when her drunken stepfather, Herod, implores Salome to perform an erotic dance for him, she agrees on the proviso that he will give her anything she asks. To Herod’s horror she demands the head of the prophet, Jokanaan.   
Salome (Cheryl Baker) receives the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist)
Photo: Branco Gaica

Cheryl Barker holds nothing back in her spellbinding interpretation of the wilful, determined and ultimately, demented sixteen-year-old, Salome. She looks ravishing, is convincing, and doesn’t hesitate to utilise the harder, less attractive areas of her voice for dramatic effect. As the opera moves remorselessly through its entirety, without interval, the audience is spared no detail as Salome sinks further and further into depravity. When Jokanaan’s head is brought to her, still dripping with blood, she orgiastically plays with it, tearing out the tongue with her hands and kissing the lips. It was difficult not to be revolted, yet impossible to tear one’s eyes away.
Salome (Cheryl Barker)
Photo: Branco Gaica
Salome (Cheryl Barker) with the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist)
Herod (John Pickering) looks on in horror.
Photo: Branco Giaca

John Wegner as Jokanaan (John the Baptist)
Photo: Branco Gaica
As the prophet, Jokanaan, John Wegner is in fine form, both vocally and physically; his voice rich and sonorous, his presence commanding.

Clad in a gold velvet suit, John Pickering almost succeeds in persuading the audience to feel some sympathy for his perplexed and deluded Herod, wallowing in his debauchery, willing to squander his wife’s position on a single erotic pleasure, and unhesitating in his decision to kill his depraved stepdaughter. Jacqueline Dark’s Herodias is an imposing and terrifying creation, desperate to maintain her position despite her husband’s drunken excesses and unwholesome interest in her daughter. David Corcoran makes a strong impression as the handsome young Syrian Captain of the Guard, Narraboth, whose repressed love for Salome results in a particularly unpleasant suicide.
Jacqueline Dark (Herodias) and John Pickering (Herod)
Photo: Branco Gaica

Central to the whole opera is Salome’s famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” and for this production Gale Edwards has decided to have each of  the seven veils represent “the 'veils’ that women wear in their power relationship with men, both in our society and throughout history”. One by one a veil is removed to reveal variously, a dancer dressed as a panty-flashing schoolgirl, a Madonna, a pole- dancer, Marilyn Monroe cavorting over an air- vent as her white dress billows around her, and so-on, all choreographed by Kelly Abbey. The final veil reveals Salome who completes the dance.

It’s a subversive idea which some audience members found amusing, while others were bemused, wondering if the opera was being trivialised. Whatever your response, it certainly makes for an entertaining and provocative interlude in an opera which contains few such opportunities.
Herod (John Pickering) and Salome (Cheryl Barker as one of the 'veils)
Photo; Branco Gaica
Emma Goh as one of the 'Veils' and Herod (John Pickering)
Photo: Branco Gaica

Salome (Cheryl Barker as one of the 'veils' )
Photo: Branco Gaica

True to form, Gale Edwards has come up with another spectacular, highly entertaining and yes, controversial production which magnificently showcases the superb vocal and orchestral resources currently enjoyed by Opera Australia, and which successfully caps a remarkable year of excellent opera productions offered by our flagship company.



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