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State Opera's Salome

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State Opera’s latest offering is Gale Edwards’ acclaimed production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, starring Kate Ladner as Salome. This production starts with impact and continues to build, driven by Strauss’s rich, evocative music. In its day, Salome was as shocking, erotic, violent and captivating as Game of Thrones is for modern television viewers.

Salome is the biblical story of Herod who, having married his brother’s wife, lusts for his step-daughter, Salome, while being unsure what to do with the prophet, Jokanaan, (just in case he should prove to be a genuine holy man) whom he has imprisoned.

The hedonistic, incestuous aristocrat offers Salome anything provided she performs an erotic dance. Salome demands the head of the prophet and, despite her step-father’s pleading, her wish is granted. There’s seduction, manipulation, implied paedophilia, incest, violence, rejection, suicide, theological debate and prophesy of disaster.

Gale Edwards has given this ancient tale a modern treatment by setting it an abattoir which is indicated by a wall of carcasses hanging upstage. Julie Lynch’s anachronistic costumes are sometimes incongruous but always intriguing: Herod was Liberace-like, dressed in a gold lame suit with flashing waistcoat, the women were almost Disney wicked step-mothers, the soldiers from Marvel comics, the assorted religious figures in black and Jokanaan in traditional prisoner ragged garb.

Instead of the usual sensual dance of the seven veils – because she didn’t want a strip-tease – Edwards has created a dance of male fantasies and so there is a pole dancer, a French maid and the Madonna who disrobes to reveal red skimpy underwear. They are clearly modern female sexual stereotypes and they were visually interesting and stimulating, but I am not convinced that the interpretation contributed to some significant social commentary and nor did it add to Salome’s fascination for Herod. It was almost as if he couldn’t have Salome there were plenty of other diversions; you could argue it was Salome dressing in different ways to titillate him, but we know they were dancers.

Doug McNicol as Jokanaan (John the Baptist) was excellent and although his body was trapped and hidden inside Brian Thomson’s attractive, multi-levelled rich prison, his magnificent voice transcended, hauntingly through the prison entrance as it soared high above. Hubert Francis is a tremendously energetic, frantic Herod, Tetrarch of Judea, who is clearly torn between honouring his word and suffering the consequences of beheading a holy man.

At times he was almost clown-like with a silly little gold crown on his head and, perhaps the intention was to undermine his authority while still presenting him as a dangerous man. Thomson’s set gave a sense of power, affluence and authority and John Rayment’s lighting, which often bathed all and sundry in vibrant reds highlighted the contrasts between the characters and the theological ideas.

The final moments were worth waiting for as Kate Ladner captivated a spell-bound audience with a sustained performance, singing and acting with only the very well made head of Jokanaan. Ladner’s Wagnerian voice and emotional performance matched the impressive playing of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as she held the hair, caressed him and finally kissed him. Simple white lighting highlighted the darkness that surrounded her.

As with any Gale Edwards production, you expect an interesting interpretation, with twists and variations that are likely to confront, may shock and will certainly stimulate. I don’t know that this talented cast and artistic team could have done more with Strauss’s opera: the music is stirring throughout, the singing first-class and audiences will be talking about the show just as they would have when it was first performed.

Salome is on at the Festival Theatre until August 31. Tickets here.

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