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English National Opera

In review ENO Salome lg 1218
David Soar and Allison Cook in ENO’s Salome
© Catherine Ashmore

AUSTRALIAN STAGE DIRECTOR Adena Jacobs has achieved prominence in the past decade with productions of new works, as well as stagings of classic texts seen “through the prism of the feminine,” as she puts it. On September 28, Jacobs made her U.K. debut at English National Opera with a new Salome, whose central character Jacobs sees as living “in a world where the only way love is expressed and power is executed is in incredibly violent ways. It’s genuinely shocking, and I’ve been trying to find ways to keep it shocking.”

There certainly were shocking elements in Jacobs’s production, which is as it should be. ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins was in the pit, but otherwise Jacobs used an all-female team of collaborators—designer Marg Howell, lighting designer Lucy Carter and choreographer Melanie Lane—to create a gripping evening of theater. 

The start of the show was unpromising. With the front of the stage enclosed within a small black-box-like structure, the opening scene appeared to show us a group of armed heavies standing at the barrier to a celebrity opening. The men, led by Stuart Jackson’s Narraboth and Clare Presland’s Page, were dressed in black and holding the audience at bay, as it were. When Allison Cook’s Salome sidled in from the side, one scarcely noticed her.

The crucial scene between Salome and David Soar’s Jochanaan was not much more successful. Wearing loincloth-like shorts, plus a single pink high-heeled shoe, Soar’s John the Baptist had strapped around his head a cumbersome device for filming the movements of his mouth and lips, which were projected onto a screen. Salome seemed no more interested in him than he was in her. Cook and Soar were both cast against type—and against the score’s instructions. As a mezzo-soprano, Cook was at a disadvantage in the higher reaches of a soprano role, just as Soar’s bass lost focus and quality when the nominally baritone part took him above his natural range.

It was only with the arrival of Herodes, Herodias and their court that the production began to engage positively with the piece. Wearing half a Santa Claus costume over a spangly jerkin, and reveling in the Expressionist quality of Strauss’s writing, tenor Michael Colvin seized every opportunity as a Herodes grotesquely obsessed with his young stepdaughter. Equally memorable was Susan Bickley’s trenchant, expertly crafted Herodias. Cook was convincing as a disengaged Salome, here a teenager with the trappings of a not-so-little pink pony, long blonde wig and skimpy clothing that evidently exerted a potent spell on her stepfather. Singing the final scene to a plastic bag containing a bulky object that dripped blood, Cook spent the opera’s closing moments with a revolver thrust into her mouth by her mother. 

Holding the enormous orchestra down to the great benefit of his principals, Brabbins showed his Straussian credentials with an interpretation that maintained consistent momentum but never tipped over into vulgarity. —George Hall

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