By Richard Strauss

Bulletin, 5 August 2003, p. 75.

Richard Strauss established his name as an opera composer in 1905 with Salome, an extended one-act piece built on the play that Oscar Wilde had contrived in 1892. That text was already a tone poem, deliciously malignant and mischievously depraved. Banned in Britain, Wilde’s Salome was embraced by Europe’s Symbolists, who welcomed its offer of languidness as decadence, punctuated by violence as aphrodisiac.

Strauss was less certain of his own voice, tracking Wagner’s symphonic music-dramas and envying Mahler’s operatic symphonies. He descried his Salome as Mendelssohn-like, and its theme of homicidal craving has been interpreted as feline, its grotesqueries wrapped in gossamer. Strauss kept his other side – as the spinner of vacuity and bombast – under control, reserving brute force in Salome for the fatal climaxes. The weak spots are Viennese sentimentality. He had, after all, just composed his Domestic Symphony.

Opera Australia has presented an interpretation which tips passion towards the raucous. The effect is compelling, each element contributing to a musical and theatrical feast which should silence quibbles but cannot escape criticism about its conception.

The title role in Salome is another of the impossible asks on the opera stage, calling for a probably virginal teenager with the vocal accomplishments of an Isolde. Lisa Gasteen attains the latter with such ease that the dramatic imbalances from woman as child are marginalised. The doubt that lingers is whether her vocal strength left too little space for sweetness in her attempt to seduce John the Baptist? Do her evocations of his beauty come across as accusations? In braking through the orchestra at its peak, Gasteen soared beyond girlishness even before her character’s immaturity had turned manic. She conveyed that moment with the vocal discipline and purity that makes us hunger for her Brunnhilde at the Ring in Adelaide late in 2004.

Herod is the pivot of the moral and the plot. His lusts make the story possible and he alone has the power to execute Salome’s desire. Richard Greager’s pinging tenor conveyed these obsessions and authority. However, his costume slipped towards the clownish. If he were such a buffoon, he would not need to keep his oath and so could let Jokanann live.

To the role of Jokanaan, Daniel Sumegi brought the vigour of a baritone and the resonance of a bass. He transcended the woodenness in the part to take charge of the one scene when he is let on stage. Only someone with his vocal heft could have been heard from the bottomless pit to which the director has condemned him. Only the surtitles made it possible to discern the threats that he hurled from that abyss.

The singing throughout was consistently appealing, with the several secondo roles secure and al the brief interpolations well covered. The theological squabble among the five Jews achieved the high humour of a Rossini ensemble in its cross-wired patter. Barry Ryan’s tenor established the quality that distinguished the evening. Against this high standard, Donna-Maree Dunlop was memorable for her performance of the page as a puppet-like creature with a doom-laden timbre. So fine is the singing that Bernadette Cullen as Herodias did not stand out as much as her vibrant mezzo entitled her to do.

The orchestra under Sebastian Weigle was full throttle for too much of the time. Despite this intensity, the playing lost little of the clarity that Strauss intended.

In his return to Opera Australia, Antony Ernst has sustained an intelligence and coherence that makes this production several times more insightful than the Kirov version at the 2001 Melbourne Festival. If the Electra at the 2000 Sydney Festival was too restrained, this Salome is too much a shocker. Contrasts of pallidness with potency were more evident in Steve Wickham’s lighting. The costume designs by Gabriella Tylesova drove the staging towards Grand Guignol rather than a domestic melodrama gone berserk. Salome looked more tart than nymphette.

The Dance of the Seven Veils, choreographed by Michael Campbell, conveyed all of Strauss’s fascination with faux Orientalism. Campbell achieved far more than merely getting over the improbably of the opera’s not being over until the fat lady dances. By incorporating Herod into the movements of erotic dancers, Campbell realised that fantasy allows us to experience what our bodies deny us.