The Victorian Opera’s latest production of “Salome” is, in my opinion, a triumph. The huge stage and perfect acoustics of the landmark Palais Theatre, St. Kilda, were made for such a breathtaking spectacle. The ominous, foreboding set by Christina Smith symbolically recreates King Herod Antipas’ palace as a theatre. It is upon this stage within a stage that the fateful story of Salome’s seduction of her stepfather, the King, plays out. It is a morality story of sinful lust that comes to destroy all the main characters. Herod offers to give his young stepdaughter anything she wants if only she’ll provocatively dance for him in a series of see-through veils adorning her beautiful body.
It was ironic to see this story on the night of the day that Harvey Weinstein had been found guilty. It seems after 2000 years, men of absolute power have learnt absolutely nothing.
The program suggests that Salome was in fact “the most renowned striptease artist in history.”
It is no surprise that in 1891 Oscar Wilde’s play about Salome was banned in Britain. Today, it still remains a shocking tale of forbidden sensuality.
King Herod’s lust for his young step-daughter, is only matched by her lust for the body of the imprisoned prophet, John the Baptist. In order to strip and dance for the King, she demands as payment, “the head of John on a silver platter,” so that she may kiss the lips of the holy man who has rejected and condemned her debauched advances. Herod resists for some time, knowing that such an act would surely bring upon them all the wrath of God. But finally, gives into his carnal desire and the stage is set for his descent into a hell of his own making.
Cameron Menzies’ clever direction is sure-handed and astutely brings out the very best in his cast. Vida Mikneviciute as Salome is a sublime revelation, and her remarkable voice sends shivers through her captivated audience; Ian Storey hits all the right notes as singer/actor portraying the conflicted and flawed Herod; his wife, Herodias, was performed to the great delight of all present by Liane Keegan; and the internationally renowned Daniel Sumegi perfectly captured the charismatic presence of the Baptist.
Australia’s treasure Richard Mills AM, conducted the orchestra with all the flair and assurance we’d expect from such an experienced and gifted professional. At the end of the performance, he received a grand ovation from the audience and cast alike.
Special mentions must also be made to Gavan Swift for his atmospheric Lighting Design; Anna Cordingley for her inspired Costume Design; and Elizabeth Hill-Cooper for choreographing the most famous dance in history and being disciplined enough to make it totally believable.
Richard Strauss originally rejected the offer to compose the music to this tale. He finally accepted after reading a new translation by Hedwig Lachmann, based upon Oscar Wilde’s original play. He created his own version of the story by cutting Wilde’s text by more than a third. Secondary characters disappeared, as did anything not germane to the central story. The end effect is spellbinding. This is not an opera that goes on and on and on. It is succinct, drama-filled and the point made about light attracting darkness continues to resonate within and around us. Strauss’ music is inspiring and touches our very souls as this play unfolds with its cast of characters, the clowns, the siren, the Jews imprisoned by tradition, the servants and soldiers who are all powerless in the presence of an invisible God who curses the actions of the evil. You want a high drama? You have it.
The Victorian Opera can be very proud of this superb production.
It is playing at the Palais Theatre tonight and tomorrow night. Don’t miss it.
Review by Frank Howson, February 2020.