Friday, October 17, 2014

Opera Hong Kong's eerily contemporary Salome

Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Friday 10th October 2014

Warren Mok, Artistic Director of Opera Hong Kong and producer of Richard Strauss’ Salome, has once again succeeded in staging opera with a discerning eye to an increasingly enthusiastic and opera-informed local audience. In a co-production with the Slovenian National Theatre Opera and Ballet, director Andrejs Zagars paints Salome as a modern, crazed and tragic figure in a cool, barren world that epitomises her disconnection from human warmth. Visually distant from its biblical origins this Salome feels eerily contemporary.

Kirsten Chambers as Salome and Daniel Sumegi as Jocahanaan

Set designer Reinis Suhanovs' stage depicted a minimalistic prismatic room, its rear wall featuring a large rectangular opening (set back to allow stage entry) with a view towards a shifting night sky and a full moon. The spatial grandeur yet soulless quality to the space perfectly characterised Salome herself. As the momentum built, so too did the complexity of the visual drama, the hard walls enhanced by Kevin Wyn-Jones' lighting design and Ineta Sipunova's video projections which combined to create a world of sumptuous ever-changing geometric-floral patterns evoking a softened Middle-Eastern feel. The only disappointment was the flat, direct access from forward stage right to the cell from which Jochanaan was thrusted undramatically. It's a small quibble.

The openness of the set on the Grand Theatre's expansive stage provided ample opportunity for movement and Zagars provided dramatic flair with skilful blocking for the central characters but some clumsy moments on peripheral action slipped into the mix, namely at the scene of Narraboth's suicide where the guards reacted with an odd unknowing what to do, for far too long. 

The German libretto by Strauss is based on Hedwig Lachmann’s translation of Oscar Wilde's play, written in French, telling a story incorporating the murderous and erotic within a biblical context. In Zagars’ interpretation there's an initial feeling of awkwardness in trying to reconcile the biblical characters and narrative with the modern, presumably Middle-Eastern transposition, but before long names felt unimportant and it less and less resembled biblical story telling. That said, it did present its problems. While not trying to present a history lesson, it does raise the issue of the relevance of a updating a story to a libretto that clearly is mismatched to the period. 

Salome shocked audiences at the opera's 1905 Dresden premiere and was initially ignored and banned by many opera houses, and although the opera has settled into the repertoire, it is often still the subject of seismic shifts. In a 2002 Canadian Opera Company production, Salome was raped by the five Jews in an updated production (which of course incensed some) and she has also been raped by the soldiers in others. This production does not shock aimlessly. Salome's famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” (it wasn't clear, however, what the seven veils referred to) was danced dutifully erotically to give the feeling Salome was pre-punishing Herod via her mocking flirtatiousness. With the exception of a token blink-and-you'll-miss-it revealing of a single breast, just as Salome leaves the stage, nudity was passed up. Herodes followed Salome off-stage then adjusted his zipper on his return, suggesting he got what he'd wanted, presumably allowing Salome to get what she wanted too.

Peter Bronders as Herodes and Kirsten Chambers as Salome
Similarly, when  Salome danced about with Jochanaan's head, we simply saw what could have been a melon covered in a clump of bedraggled hair. But the shock was delivered when (not so much by the kiss) the plainly mad Salome placed the head between her knees as she writhed on the floor. It was certainly enough for me to understand (not endorse) Herodes' reaction when he ordered his guards to kill his step-daughter and perhaps find some peace in his superstitious thoughts.

Kristine Pasternaka's costume designs gave clarity and punchy character to her cast. On a stage protected by black-uniformed guards, Salome made her entrance in a purely pink glittering pantsuit and thigh-length 'poodle' jacket, wearing the colour pink with power. Salome underwent two other changes, both in revealing black chiffon. Herodes was portrayed in a dinner suit and satin gown. Herodias towered over and dominated her husband on bold heels and two changes of costumes of quirkily grotesque elegance and Jochanaan made his appearance in a straight-jacket, later in prison attire, to reveal the man he was forced to become.

The principal soloists indeed added ample life to their costumes to deliver convincingly powerful performances. Kirsten Chambers seemed to give everything she lived for to Salome. Her debut in the role was praiseworthy. In this hugely demanding role Chambers never appeared to tire. On the contrary, the depth of her performance grew wildly as she exhibited the fitness of an athlete. In her voice’s lowest range, however, her struggle to shape volume and beauty was apparent but the dramatic colour exhibited throughout her middle range and the defined delicacy of her high notes easily won the audience over to Chambers' Goliath effort.

Entering in sunglasses and seemingly forever holding a wineglass, Jacqueline Dark as Herodias wasn't going to spill a drop and she mimicked much the same agility in her fiercely solid vocal confidence and dramatic portrayal of the ruthless and manipulative woman behind her lecherous husband, Herodes. Peter Bronders’ Herodes was also both pitiful and pathetic. With a strangely endearing whining-like vocal quality and characterful performance, Bronders' added much to the drama, drawn from his wealth of experience in Wagnerian roles.

Jacqueline Dark as Herodias and Peter Bronders as Herodes
Daniel Sumegi pounded the stage with a performance that shook with thunderous impact. Much of Jochanaan's boisterous prophesizing happened from off-stage but sadly the sound distortion created by electronic intervention gave his voice an uneasy, thin, metallic sound. Sumegi's power to project and largesse of vocal expression would seem more than enough to have warranted a more natural rendering.

For the short period before his on-stage almost unnoticed suicide, Jason Wickson gave a merited performance as Narraboth. In the smaller roles I also especially liked the almost comedic-acted discourse and vocal harmony enacted by the five Jews, Alex Tam, Frankie Liu, Christopher Leung, Chen Yong and Apollo Wong.

Musically, conductor John Neschling let the breadth of Strauss' score shine with the brilliance it was notated as, the tempi always feeling conducive to the action. Perhaps the pit was responsible for swallowing some of the character in the music but Neschling may have, however, been able to do even more to extract larger volumes from the sizeable Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra when it was needed and to develop greater contouring of the sound.

The balance between administering shock and presenting powerful drama enticingly with an indefatigably talented cast has gifted audiences in Hong Kong with another operatic highlight. However, it also raises prickly issues and opens that can of worms when working with historical updates/original libretti. 

Photographs courtesy of Opera Hong Kong

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