EIF: Salome

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Richard Strauss offhandedly referred to Salome as “a scherzo with a fatal conclusion”, but then he was prone to such deviant moments of glib, self-effacing understatement. As this raw, incisive concert performance by the Bergen Philharmonic under chief conductor Edward Gardner and heady cast, spearheaded by Swedish soprano Malin Byström in the title role, made abundantly clear, Salome remains one of the game-changing operas of the 20th century opera.

With a libretto fashioned around Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play (via Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation), Strauss didn’t hold back in adapting such a gruesomely salaciously plot – scandalised mainly by Salome’s hideous demand to receive and kiss the severed head of Jochanaan – into a thoroughly grotesque, uncompromising and radical piece of music theatre. This un-staged presentation made the strongest of cases for the penetrating emotional clout of the music alone.

Gardner, who relinquishes his Bergen post in 2024 to become artistic director of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, had the full measure of it. His orchestra’s unceasing role was monumental, displaying passion and precision at every nail-biting turn, the sheer weight and volume at times overwhelming, but never to the detriment of detailed instrumental subtleties that glistened with illuminating intent. 

It’s all about Salome, of course, and what a seething performance from Byström, who is set to sing the role next month in a revival of David McVicar’s staged production at Covent Garden. You could sense in her Edinburgh performance a hint of mental preparation for that, every eye movement and body gesture testing the water.

And who’d have thought the Dance of the Seven Veils could have proved so seductive without the actual dance? Byström simply tossed a silken scarlet scarf at Herod’s feet before leaving the stage to allow Strauss’ provocative musical striptease to speak for itself. But the focus was ever on the voice, and a performance of thrilling stature, bestial venom and captivating sexuality.

There was barely a weak link in this entire cast, its core characters evenly distinguished. Gerhard Siegel imbued Herod with a fitting, almost maniacal, sleaziness, countered potently by the superior smugness of Katarina Dalayman’s Herodias and the piety and passion in Johan Reuter’s soaring performance as the fated Jochanaan. 

Above all, this was a performance engineered by Gardner that maintained its grip from start to finish, the tension inexorable, the expressive possibilities fully explored. It was Bergen’s second operatic triumph at an Edinburgh Festival. Here’s hoping there’s a third.

Ken Walton

Picture: Andrew Perry