Opera North’s concert performance of Salome marks the start of an exciting spring season for the company. In order to accommodate a full orchestra for this concert performance, Opera North have migrated from their home at the much-loved Grand Theatre to Leeds’ opulent Town Hall.
The only flaw in the setting for the performance within this beautiful venue is that it could at times threaten to distract from the action onstage.
Richard Strauss’s salacious opera has enthralled audiences over the years as much as it has appalled. Salome, based upon Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play, is unapologetically scandalous, featuring the teenage girl’s attempt to seduce the prophet Jokanaan.
Strauss saw the play in Germany and declared he was ‘already busy composing the opera’ by the time curtain dropped. Wilde’s subversion of the Biblical tale prompted wide disgust and caused the Lord Chamberlain to ban the play. With themes of incest, feminine sexual desire, debauchery and necrophilia it’s not hard to see why Salome horrified its Victorian audience. But Opera North does not match the scandal within the tale with an extravagant set; this is naked opera standing on the talent of the performers alone.
The real star of this performance is Jennifer Holloway, making her Opera North debut as Salome. She encapsulates Salome’s devastating desire for Jokanaan with a sensual energy that threatens to engulf the audience in the tragedy as well as those onstage. Salome is the only character in costume, a ball gown emphasizing her position as the object of desire. Robert Hayward also delivers an excellent and sonorous performance as the doomed prophet who fatally captures Salome’s attraction. Arnold Bezuyen portrays the lecherous Herod and has an excellent onstage dynamic with Katarina Karnéus as his wife Herodias. The married couple’s bickering brought a few humorous moments to an otherwise sober plot. Oliver Johnston is excellent as the spurned Narraboth and the chorus brings the range of supporting characters to life with pizazz.
The lack of a set leaves the audience to imagine the severed head on its platter, and Salome’s infamous Dance of the Seven Veils is performed offstage. This really leaves the orchestra to shine and they met this challenge exceptionally. Ably conducted by the experienced Richard Armstrong, the score is haunting and complements the repeated references to the ghostly moonlight shining upon Herod’s palace. It was great to see the company’s orchestra take centre stage during the offstage dance, many of whose members have been part of Opera North for over 25 years. This adaptation survives without a set as the score makes it unnecessary, bringing a sensual and evocative vividness to the performance without ever threatening to drown out the singers.
Salome is a short opera comprised of one just act, but any fears of facing 1 hour and 45 minutes of opera without interval would be ill-founded. The action, in keeping with Salome’s infamous character, is entrancing. This concert performance is a triumph for Opera North and a fitting start to a season that promises to be just as exhilarating.
You can still catch Salome at Leeds Town Hall on Sunday at 4 pm on 25 April at 7.30pm.
Further afield, it’s at Hull City Hall on 16 May at 7.30pm.
0844 848 2720 or operanorth.co.uk.
Esther is a contributor for Leeds Living, covering events all across the City, on topics such as eat/drink, retail therapy and culture.