December 5, 2022

Salome by Richard Strauss at the Grand Opera House, Belfast

Despite the tidy small size of Belfast’s Grand Opera House, Northern Ireland Opera staged Strauss’ Salome, with its large orchestral forces, in succession to last season’s Flying Dutchman. As with the Wagner Opera, the daunting title role was taken by Giselle Allen, a rising Belfast-born diva whose career was launched from Belfast.

Before Northern Ireland Opera’s Salome opened in Belfast, I expressed some apprehension as to how Strauss’ huge orchestral forces would come across in a small house, albeit with excellent acoustics. In the event, the orchestral contribution was indeed Strauss…huge yet intimate, leitmotifs unwinding the narrative in a unending sucession of audio delights, suppporting the lyricism, enhancing the unfolding drama, lending colour and tone to the unerring vocal lines of the singers. If occasionally, the singers were difficult to distinguish, I blame the ambience rather than the comprehensive playing of the UO under the astute Nicholas Chalmers, the complex polychromatic score with its extended tonalities, wide ranging-keys, strange modulations and poly tonality delivering a powerful dramatic quality that underlaid a memorable performance and interpretatrion of the daunting title role from Giselle Allen.

One of the pleasures of being an”oldie” reviewer is hearing aspiring young singers such as Giselle Allen, who I’d not heard for some time. I rated her then and I give her the highest possible rating now..a mindbending performance, technically dramatic soprano, brilliant, faultlessly and powerfully, tirelessly sustaining the huge stamina demands of the vocal role. But Allen offers more than tech brilliance…her spoiled, unfettered, retarded, childlike, and wilfully obdurate teenager came interspersed with flashes of femme fatale, desire overlaid with lust…a dangerous underage brat with the seductive power of a true harpy, a compelling portrait of dangerous jailbait in Oliver Mears’ clever transposition to a drug baron’s ranchero, the ambience focused on Salome rather than Herodias ( a forty something, ageing consort apprehensive of her husband’s growing incestous bewitchment for her daughter laced with a vicious hatred for the Prophet). Her amoral daughter has no trouble maintaining sway over the besotted Herod, nor in bringing her lusting swain Narraboth (a competent, full-voiced Adrian Dwyer) to heel. She has little interest in his suicidal demise, but the disdainful rejection of her at first curious then ardent advances by Jokanaan ( a sonorous , powerfully prophetic Robert Hayward) only serves to enhance her desire. Hell hath no fury like this wilful child, refused her favourite toy..a foot stamping, sulking refusal to accept anything other than the fulfilment of Herod’s promise to the letter – a “give me my toy…I will have my toy” demand for revenge.

Michael Colvin, from his inital birthday bash appreciation of the puerile, pulchritudinous Salome, takes the scheming, decadent, lustful Herod in his stride, drawing with orchestral accompaniment in the “riches” monologue, a kalaidescope of temptation…fearfully painted against the background of Salome’s increasingly strident rejection of his offers, and Herodias realisation she may have her own share of revenge after all.

That dance is skillfully and superbly executed by dancer Hayley Chilvers, no veils but a seamless hugely erotic striptease solo ballet, calculated nay guaranteed to have Herod and any males in sight slavering with lust.

Combined with Ann Marie Wood’s ranchero setting, well dressed and lit, this Salome is far from Oscar Wilde’s (Alfred Douglas) aesthetic, lyrical stage version and unlike the original drama, in the hands of NI Opera, Strauss’ version works to perfection. A memorable, musically and visually dramatic tone-poem come to life on stage.

by Charles FitzGerald.

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