No, no, no, Salome says in what feels like hundreds of ways to her lascivious stepfather Herod. No, I don’t want to drink with you, no, I don’t want to eat with you, no, I don’t want to sit with you. No, I don’t want to be looked at by you.

Salome, Opera AustraliaJacqueline Dark and Lise Lindstrom in Opera Australia’s Salome. All photos © Prudence Upton 

But yes, I will dance for you if you give me the head of Jokanaan, she proffers. As the dangerously single-minded princess of Richard Strauss’ opera, Lise Lindstrom makes this moment of allowance – after so many rebuffs – complex and thrilling. Through her intelligently conceived portrayal, you understand that Salome has spent much of her adolescence fending off Herod’s advances, and is now fully alive to the particular, if admittedly limited, power she holds over him.

It’s too bad that Lindstrom’s keen insights aren’t matched by Gale Edwards’ production (revived by Andy Morton), which remains a blunt realisation of this complex work. Though not ineffective, obvious points proliferate and are made with little finesse: aristocracy gone to seed is represented by a string of carcasses for palace décor; the Dance of the Seven Veils exposes the staid nature of male fantasies. This Salome feels incredibly dated in 2019, lacking in both daring and original insight. What’s more, key moments – such as the suicide of Narraboth – go for nothing, almost apologetically staged. If your production has two of its principals wearing gold lamé, you ought not be afraid to go the whole hog when it really matters.

Salome, Opera AustraliaLise Lindstrom in Opera Australia’s Salome

Thankfully, much of this is eclipsed by the potency of Lindstrom’s portrayal. Hers is a deeply compelling, three-dimensional Salome, subtle and invested with a wealth of detail. Bored and haughty in her first moments onstage, she displays the glee of an overgrown toddler when finally allowed to behold the mysterious Jokanaan, and turns on a dime from wheedling to malignant in their torturous exchange. But what strikes you most of all is how still Lindstrom can be – rather than a manic whirlwind, she shows us a girl stewing in her own neuroses and unbounded desires, unused to not getting what she wants when she wants it. Lindstrom brings this same sense of stillness to the opera’s final moments, establishing a dreamy (or is it nightmarish?) sense of intimacy with the now-mutilated object of her desire.

Vocally, the soprano is terrific, no surprise to audiences who’ve seen her Brünnhilde and Turandot for Opera Australia. She brings to the role a lean, silvery voice with the cut of a blade, able to both ride Strauss’ ocean of sound and float high-lying phrases when needed. Her diction is immaculate, while her handling of the text is natural and always specific. While Lindstrom’s middle voice didn’t project as well as her top at times, she made up for it with a killer low register, her “und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist größer als das Geheimnis des Todes” (the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death) resonant and coolly sinister. She tackled the opera’s gruelling final scene with astonishing abandon, unfurling Strauss’ long lines with an eerie beauty.

Salome, Opera AustraliaAlexander Krasnov as Jokanaan in Opera Australia’s Salome

As the object of her obsession, bass-baritone Alexander Krasnov in his company debut was a stentorian, animalistic Jokanaan. Though Edwards’ production doesn’t give him much to do, his sheer vocal presence went some way in explaining Salome’s fascination. While Krasnov didn’t nail all of Strauss’ gruesomely sustained phrases, he brought an immediate authority to the self-righteous prophet that was just right. This was an impressive performance that won him a deservedly warm reception.

As Herod, Andreas Conrad obviously understands that Salome is in many ways Strauss’ best comedy, pitch-black though it is. His bafflement at the dead Narraboth (“I did not order him killed!”) was especially funny, while his grasping schoolboy eagerness during Salome’s dance was spot on. He displayed ample comic flair without descending into the usual character tenor tics, his voice penetrating and expressive. Jacqueline Dark’s Herodias is a known quantity and ever welcome – she chews the scenery brilliantly as the bored, drunk, lush, hyper-aware of her own breeding and her husband’s newly acquired status. She also brings plenty of nuance to the role, letting us see a mother growing increasingly unsettled by her daughter’s perversity.

Salome, Opera AustraliaAndreas Conrad in Opera Australia’s Salome

Among the supporting cast, tenor Paul O’Neill shone in his brief appearance as the lovesick Narraboth, sweet and ardent of tone, while Sian Pendry was an effective, anxious Page. The soldiers and Nazarenes acquitted themselves well, while the Jews captured the subtle comic spirit that Conrad and Dark brought in spades.

While the usual pit restrictions meant a slightly smaller-scale reading of the opera – some climaxes were less than earth-shattering – conductor Johannes Fritzsch brought his usual attention to detail and colour to Strauss’ coolly modernist score. Details like the rays of the moon and the glint of jewels were all effortlessly evoked by the Opera Australia Orchestra, who gave a supple reading that was highly supportive of the singers. Most impressive of all was how Fritzsch established an increasing sense of dread.

A final word. The force of Lindstrom’s Salome was met not with immediate applause (though there was plenty afterward) but awed, almost shocked murmurs. When an artist can provoke such a reaction in a piece as familiar as this, that’s surely opera at its best.

Salome is at the Sydney Opera House until March 26


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