***.5 stars

By Cedar Brown

Staged amid reports of domestic violence, the Victorian Opera production of Salome strikes a raw note. A gender reversal of the incel language that often precipitates gendered violence, we see Salome bemoaning how ‘beautiful’ her desired was, how angry she is that he did not desire her back, and how this was a justification for violence. It feels difficult to watch. Another thread in the work is that female desire has a long history of being presented as monstrous, disgusting, and morally bereft, and Salome forms a part of this tradition. The incessant pleading and entreaties of the men towards her are normalised in comparison to the brutal ‘madness’ of her own desire and the harshness of its consequence. These elements, as well as the troubling anti-Semitic notes in the characterisation of the Jewish characters, make an opera known for its gruesome eroticism an even more disconcerting experience.

The set and costumes immerse the audience in a strange world: a crumbling stage within a stage, a dilapidated vaudeville that is at once gaudy and entrancing. Set designer Christina Smith and costume designer Anna Cordingley have created a detailed, if confusing, visual universe wherein disembodied heads and faces loom throughout the earlier scenes, foreshadowing the gruesomely realistic head that becomes the fixation of Salome’s desire. The concept behind this staging feels opaque, only revealed in the Director’s note to be a comment on the diversionary tactics of the ruling class. However, despite the questions it raises, the design draws the audience in with its delicious opulence.

The performances in Vic Opera’s Salome are superb. Vida Miknevičiūtė delivers the title soprano role of Salome with stunning execution. Her stage presence is magnetic throughout, and she is particularly transfixing in her disturbing ravishment of the severed head. Confusing, however, is her enactment of the famous Dance of the seven veils, which lacks the commitment and intention needed to straddle the line it sashays between humorous and sexy. The rich vocal performances of Ian Storey and Liane Keegan as Herod and Herodias are paired with the powerful and humorous way both performers command the space. Daniel Sumegi’s bass-baritone haunts the stage with its fullness. Dimity Shepard as the Page of Herodias also brings a compelling, wiry energy to the performance. These performers, more so than the derelict set, vividly illustrate a kind of putrefying moral depravity.

However, the richness of the performances and the quality of the music do not allay its troubling portrayals of female desire and of sexual entitlement as a cause of violence. While being a stunning musical experience, Salome resonates in difficult ways on a 2020 stage.

Performance 4.5, Direction 3.5, Costume and set 3.5, Lighting 3.5, Sound 4

Images:Craig Fuller