(l-r) Hanna Schwarz and Erika Sunnegårdh (photo: Michael Cooper)
You’re my obsession
by Shannon Christy
John the Baptist (Jochanaan) always struck me as a rock star. A mysterious man who comes out of the desert and immediately picks up some followers while snubbing his nose at the authorities. Until, one day, those same authorities arrest him and he is beheaded at the behest of one of their spoiled daughters, Salome.
This is where my imagination ends and it is what separates me from a literary giant like Oscar Wilde and a musical genius like Richard Strauss. These two men re-envisioned the story first as Mr. Wilde’s play and then Mr. Strauss’ opera. The Canadian Opera Company, in a spring dedicated to tragedies, has revived Atom Egoyan’s 1996 production (remounted in 2002) for a tense audience eager to rediscover this beautiful work.
Mrs. Sunnegårdh’s (Salome) voice never fails.
The work has always been controversial for its suggestiveness and its open portrayal of disgust with the ruling class. Mr. Egoyan’s production continued with the tradition of controversy by incorporating a new twist, rape, in a scene which has been completely revisited for this version.
The use of film, shadows, and dance by Phillip Barker, Clea Minaker, and Serge Bennathan, respectively, is a treat that blends seamlessly with the music. The evening is peppered with these media until they finally merge into a unique take on the dance of the seven veils that starts as a video, turns into a play of shadows, and then culminates into a rape scene. Although the subject is extremely unsettling, the techniques used to narrate it are phenomenal.
The color choices of costume designer Catherine Zuber are a bright delight to contrast with the dour dungeon and minimalistic art deco furniture of the King’s palace. However, the costumes themselves are confusing with the prison guards dressed in suits, the Five Jews as clones of the same head-shaven mad scientist and the maids dressed as nurses. Yet given the quality of the orchestra under conductor Johannes Debus and the quality of the vocal performances they could have been dressed as Care Bears or Smurfs and it would still have been a success.
The strength of this work is and always will be the music. Strauss was every bit as much of a prodigy as Mozart but unlike Mozart he had the means to pursue his dreams and the good fortune of a long life. In this work he is already a master of the romantic genre and begins to play with atonal effects. This requires a skilled conductor and orchestra who can dangle in and out of the varying tempos.
Mrs. Sunnegårdh’s (Salome) voice never fails. Not only does she deliver vocally without tiring throughout the entire piece, but she does so providing a compelling performance of a woman driven insane by her obsession to possess. Her facial expressions, be it outraged by being rejected or overcome with desire for having complete control over her most desired possession are captivating.
Martin Ganter’s (Jochanaan) voice as a man in direct communication with God while stuck in a vile world ruled by the successfully corrupt has prophetic zeal. Richard Margison’s (Herod) voice rings with the torment of desire for Salome and his apprehension in giving her what she demands.
This production is another, dark, triumph for the COC this spring. It is probably not the best introduction to opera for children but for adults it is a fantastic take on a horrifying story...and it will be gone by May 22.
Salome continues to May 22
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