Ewing’s Salome twenty years on

Sir Peter Hall’s production of Strauss’ Salome caused a bit of a sensation when it was first seen at the Royal Opera House and when it was broadcast on Channel 4 because Lady Hall, Maria Ewing, finishes up naked at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. How well does it wear after twenty years? First a couple of caveats. My DVD copy is the Kultur release of a few years ago. It now seems to be available from Opus Arte and it’s possible, indeed likely that some of the sound issues have been fixed in that release. If anybody has seen the Opus Arte version please let me know in comments. Anyway, the Kultur release has rather muffled sound with the voices balanced well back from the orchestra and no real solidity to the sound stage which is a pity in this particular work and obviously affects my view.

The production is really pretty conventional. There are lots of greens, greys and blue. It’s quite dark and the set is stagey and conventional. Almost all the visual interest revolves around Ewing’s Salome though Michael Devlin’s scantily clad and palely made up Jochanaan is quite arresting too. Narraboth (Robin Legate) is an unremarkable actor and Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Gillian Knight) look uncomfortably like a couple of drag queens. The latter though does manage a pretty effective hissy fit. For the sound reasons mentioned above it’s hard to be sure whether the rather insipid vocal performances by Devlin and Leggate are really their faults. There’s also no change in acoustic when Jochanaan is singing from the cistern which is odd. Riegel and Knight do better at projecting themselves beyond the orchestra and turn in OK performances.

All that said, one feels from beginning to end that this was set up to be the Maria Ewing show. One really can’t fault her acting which is quite compelling and manages by turns to be chilling, hypnotic, seductive, perverse, frenzied and orgasmic. The choreographer (Elizabeth Keen) does a pretty good job of creating credible dance moves for someone who clearly isn’t a great dancer though there’s no doubting her commitment to what she does. Vocally she gets away with a voice that’s really not big enough for the role. Somehow she manages a lot of projection from not so much volume and her vocal acting is good. It’s an extreme case of Ewing pretty much making things work when really they ought not to. The orchestra under Edward Downes sounds OK but also suffers from the recording.

The recording, directed by Derek Bailey, is about what one would expect from a 1992 TV broadcast. The picture quality is acceptable but not great 4:3 with hard coded English subtitles. Sound, as mentioned, is barely adequate. There are no extras and no documentation.

This is probably worth having a look at as a record of an iconic performance by Ewing but I can’t imagine anyone would choose it as the definitive Salome.

And just for fun, here’s a non-operatic bonus; a set of pictures of my copy of the 1938 edition of Wilde’s Salomé with pochoir illustrations by André Derain.