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Still a shocker

Toronto
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/21/2013 -  & April 27, May 1, 4, 7, 10, 16, 22, 2013
Richard Strauss: Salome, opus 54
Erika Sunnegårdh (Salome), Martin Gantner*/Alan Held (Jochanaan), Richard Margison (Herod), Hanna Schwarz (Herodias), Nathaniel Peake (Narraboth), Maya Lahyani (The Page of Herodias), Evan Boyer (First Soldier), Sam Handley (Second Soldier), Neil Craighead (A Cappadocian), Claire de Sévigné (A Slave), Adrian Thompson (First Jew), Michael Colvin (Second Jew), Michael Barrett (Third Jew), Adam Luther (Fourth Jew), Jeremy Milner (Fifth Jew), Craig Irvin (First Nazarine), Owen McCausland (Second Nazarine)
The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (Conductor)
Atom Egoyan (Director), Derek McLane (Set Designer), Catherine Zuber (Costume Designer), Michael Whitfield (Lighting Designer), Phillip Barker (Projections Designer), Serge Bennathan (Choreographer), Clea Minaker (Shadow Designer)


M. Gantner & E. Sunnegårdh (© Michael Cooper)


Once again the COC presents us with a production that is musically vital but with directorial touches that leave one frequently exasperated - but, in the end, do not cancel out the powerful cumulative effect the work is intended to have.


On the musical side, COC Music Director Johannes Debus further cements his high standing locally with his handling of the score’s multi-layered mosaic. The orchestra is expanded to the requisite 106 players (and even includes a heckelphone).


The four main roles are all stunningly sung and portrayed. Erika Sunnegårdh is convincing as a young girl but also has the power to carry her through the epic stretches of the title role. Her sixth and final iteration of her demand for den Kopf des Jochanaan is truly hair-raising.


Martin Gantner (Jochanaan) is a real find - a heldenbariton with a heldentenor cutting edge; he sounds terrific even when singing from beneath the stage. Hanna Schwarz commands the scene both vocally and dramatically as Herodias. It makes perfect sense that, in one of Atom Egoyan’s many innovations, she assists the executioner in beheading the baptist. (It is she who triumphantly presents the head - not on a platter but in a fruit bowl - to her daughter.)


Richard Margison consistently maintains Herod’s hysterical edge through the fevered gamut of the character’s paranoid, narcissistic outbursts.


Nathaniel Peake displays an attractive, ardent voice as Narraboth, the young captain here portrayed as a modern, suited security guard. It’s a pity he has to participate in distracting stage business (specifically receiving oral sex from the character known as the Page of Herodias, here portrayed as a female executive assistant) during the encounter between Salome and Jochanaan. In the middle of all this he shoots himself.


Herod’s palace is portrayed as a modern-day spa. On the back wall we see projections of what look like mutilated bodies that turn out to be people indulging in a mad bath. Among the many projections is one of Jochanaan’s mouth during those moments he is singing from his dungeon. Salome and other characters wear bathrobes (see photo above).


The director certainly gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of the five quarreling Jews. Three of them gang rape Salome at the finale of her dance (this is portrayed as a shadow play behind a large sheet). One of them injects Herod with a tranquillizing injection when he is in one of his feverish fits; others appear with an array of colourful pharmaceuticals when Herod offers an array of jewels to Salome, and the hundred white peacocks he offers turn out to be packets of white powder pinned to the inside of a Jew’s coat.


At the very end Herod, who has spent the previous minutes (while Salome sings her aria to the severed head) in a drugged stupor, perks up and commands Man töte dieses Weib! (“Kill this woman”) which the surtitles render as “This woman must die”. Since there is no-one handy to kill her, he strangles her himself. While this adds to the already high shock-value of the ending, it shows Herod to suddenly be a man of action, which is quite out of character.


This production was premiered at the COC back in 1996, then repeated in 2002. Director Egoyan has made some changes this time around, mainly during the Dance of the Seven Veils. In his notes, the director wonders about the real cause of Salome’s perverse behaviour and has decided that she must have been sexually abused as a child. He portrays this during the Seven Veils music, when Salome gets on to a swing which is pulled up to the flies while a large sheet fills the proscenium on which is projected images of a child on a swing. She is seen to be walking among trees where she is stalked by a group of men. In 1996 and 2002 we saw shadow images of the child being assaulted; this has been replaced by a dancing figure of adolescent age and we aren’t certain whether the assault portrayed was in the past or is part of the dance witnessed by Herod.


The modernization of the setting, like all non-traditional staging of opera, is meant to give us extra insights into the work and draw parallels with contemporary life. It is also meant to jolt us into thinking about the piece instead of mindlessly enjoying it. What we end up doing, though, is trying to interpret the director’s intentions with a lot of thought devoted as to how and why they either work or (sadly so frequently) do not. Polemics erupt and anyone critical of a director's approach is deemed reactionary.


In this production, equating the supposed decadence of a modern-day spa with the court of a paranoid despot or the decadent style and content of the opera (with its morbid fixations) only serves to trivialize the latter. The sexual assault on Salome arguably jibes with the lurid plot, but if we have to find a psycho-social reason for her behaviour, what are the roots of Herod and Herodias’s viciousness? Salome might just be a spoiled rich girl (there are lots of those around).


Atom Egoyan’s other production for the COC was Die Walküre, which turned out to be the only part of the 2006 Ring that earned booing for its director (ardent booing at that). Next season he will be directing a new Così fan tutte, a work that, with its subterfuge and ambivalent relationships, can easily justify an edgy approach. We look forward to that with a mingled degree of curiosity and trepidation.



Michael Johnson

 

 

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