A blood-slick collection of unidentifiable cuts of meat is tipped out onto the Coliseum’s stage. In a huge auditorium, you can’t smell them. In fact, even this vegetarian will admit they look oddly beautiful, shining like rare stones as a cast of opera singers sift through them, squatting on the floor in glittering costumes. Australian director Adena Jacobs’ staging of Strauss’s opera Salome is all about this mingling of gross viscera and crystalline beauty, raw sensuality and confrontational power.
It also feels authentically, messily queer. Salome is based on Oscar Wilde’s play and some of the same language rings through it: the kind of lavish, metaphor-heavy sensuality that explores a woman’s power over a court where desire is currency. But Jacobs’ also undercuts this story with a more modern kind of queerness. Herod’s court is populated by men who look like they’ve stumbled out of a leather bar, all tight black straps and jangling metal, and by women who furiously resist being looked at.
In the original story, the male gaze and female gaze are balanced, opposing forces. Salome lusts after the prophet Jokanan. And everyone else lusts after her. The all-female creative team of Salome totally destabilise this balance. Jokanan’s face is imprisoned in a strange, fetishistic metal contraption containing a camera that projects the huge, fleshy mouth onto the wall behind him – his words are irrelevant, and Salome masturbates to his image. When it’s Salome’s turn to be objectified, she won’t play. This reimagined dance of the seven veils (the bit that everyone remembers about Salome) is a masterpiece. Played by Allison Cook, whose beautifully fluid voice is matched by strong physical characterisation, this Salome doesn’t strip. She’s alone on stage: no lustful gaze, just her, facing down the audience, gripping a metal baseball bat. She’s hungry for blood, and she’ll get it. Her desire fragments into avatars, a group of female dancers wearing the same icy blonde high ponytails and grubby sports socks. As Strauss’s music swirls, frenzied and sensuous, their movements resist its romanticism: they twerk or hump the ground, in a porn-influenced aesthetic they’ve appropriated and made fearsome.
Michael Church’s review describes Herod’s approving “wonderful” after their dance as “another of this show’s little mysteries” but to me, that moment felt both lucid and central. Herod sees Salome as so beautiful, so innocent, that he thinks it’s impossible for her to have dangerous desires. Even when her bloodlust is there in plain sight, he’s blind to it. And she’s been raised in a world of male violence and oppressive feminity to the point where it’s soaked her own desires, and seeped into the clothes she wears and each self-aware, deceptively girlish movement that she makes.
Other reviews have described this production as “incoherent” or “baffling” or “decidedly peculiar”, something that feels totally at odds with my experience of it: it felt arresting and powerful, situated within a younger and more contemporary set of cultural reference points than I’m used to seeing at the opera. Marg Horwell’s design is slick and hyper-feminine, combining with Jacobs’ direction to flood the stage with images that sublimate the decadent, rich language of the libretto: a fluffy decapitated horse, a giant aperture of pink flowers, a female body floating in a glowing, moon-like tank. It’s a reflection of the way that each character in this opera is trapped in their own dream-like playground of desire, unable to see beyond their own glittering lust or greed or religious fervour.
Even the production’s artwork is totally onboard with this aesthetic mood: a bright pink plastic pony melting into an equally bright pink plastic goo, or paddling in a pool of its own blood, depending how you look at it.
Sometimes there’s the odd outbreak of energy around the question of how to get younger people interested in opera and here, now, Daniel Kramer’s artistic directorship of the ENO feels like the answer. Projects like Effigies of Wickedness at Gate Theatre or Paul Bunyan at Wilton’s Music Hall are taking opera into new contexts. And Adena Jacobs’s production feels like it’s putting new cultural contexts into opera, making live art-inspired images are startling and strange, but will also speak to people in the same way that hetpalais’s 13 or RashDash’s Two Man Show might.
Strauss’s opera will always be lush and ear-fillingly beautiful – especially when it’s performed to this level, by an orchestra at the top of their game. Wilde’s story will always be problematic and strange. Here, Jacobs adds a third strong creative vision: a visual argument and discussion with these two male voices, and a set of images with a mythic power all of their own.
Salome is on at ENO until 23rd October. More info here.