Victorian Opera opens its 2020 season with Richard Strauss’ short, sharp sensation. Directed by Cameron Menzies, this production is perhaps the company’s most impressive yet. While the concept of theatrical falsehood takes some fathoming, it’s visually enthralling and unnerving. More importantly, this Salome is musically exciting, especially with Vida Miknevičiūtė in the title role, and Orchestra Victoria is in top form.

Vida Miknevičiūtė in Victorian Opera’s Salome. Photo © Craig Fuller

Premiering in Dresden in 1905, Salome was adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play by the composer. Revolutionary and unrelentingly intense, Strauss’ music was as sensational as this one-act opera’s story of illicit desires. Based on the biblical episode about John the Baptist, here called Jokanaan, it tells of this holy man’s imprisonment for denouncing the marriage of King Herod and his brother’s wife, Herodias. Her daughter, Salome, has become Herod’s object of desire, while she in turn develops a strange obsession with Jokanaan. He rejects Salome, so when Herod asks her to dance she demands Jokanaan’s head as reward.

Making her role and Victorian Opera debut, Lithuanian soprano Vida Miknevičiūtė was captivating as Salome on opening night. Her voice’s shimmering tone, power and expressiveness – particularly masterfully controlled dynamics – belied the role’s extraordinary demands, right through to the end of that mad, final 20-minute aria.

The demands are not only vocal, however. Miknevičiūtė also triumphed as an actress, initially exuding a cool ennui, then revealing Salome’s manipulative and obsessive traits just like that infamous dance of the seven veils: bit by shocking bit for maximum effect. Choreographed by Elizabeth Hill-Cooper, the dance itself is a clever pastiche of seduction, parody and boredom, capably executed by Miknevičiūtė.

Vida Miknevičiūtė and Daniel Sumegi in Victorian Opera’s Salome. Photo © Craig Fuller

Daniel Sumegi brought his imposing bass-baritone and physical presence to the role of Jokanaan. His confident, resonant voice was full of judgement and outrage, while his body, even when strung up like a wild animal, exuded a fierce energy. As Herod, Ian Storey was a ball of frustration, physically sagging while his tenor expressed a weariness that belied its actual strength and warmth.

The supporting cast also sang well, notably James Egglestone as lovelorn soldier Narraboth, but they have limited vocal opportunities. Liane Keegan, who poses and precariously leans from a balcony, and Dimity Shepherd, gesturing with comic theatricality, are therefore well cast as Herodias and her page, respectively. They are fine singers who can also act the part.

Orchestra Victoria was in full force, both in terms of sheer numbers and the exposure given to their sound by the Palais’ relatively shallow, open pit. Victorian Opera Artistic Director Richard Mills marshalled that force to thrilling effect, making Strauss’ taut, colourful score the narrator-character of this psychodrama. Though the singers were occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra’s mighty sound (notably, Miknevičiūtė always cuts right through), it rarely mattered because, far from being mere accompaniment, every note of Salome’s score is critical and compelling.

Liane Keegan and Ian Storey in Victorian Opera’s Salome. Photo © Craig Fuller

Visually, this production is perhaps the most impressive yet for Victorian Opera. Christina Smith’s set is a once-grand, now derelict theatre. This uncluttered space is brought to nightmarish life by Gavan Swift’s lighting, which shines through a vast, shattered window on one side, oozes along a passage on the other and, for Jokanaan’s entrance, creates dramatic shadows and silhouettes.

Anna Cordingley’s costumes suggest Belle Époque circus and carnival figures, the characters’ tawdry, sometimes tattered looks completed with vintage clown make-up. There’s also an element of 1920s and 30s cinema: German Expressionism’s unnerving strangeness, and especially Hollywood glamour apparent in Salome’s gorgeous silvery grey suit and the shimmering, tasselled vamp look for her dance.

Victorian Opera begins the 2020 season with its usual sense of adventure, as well as even more refined artistry.

Salome is at the Palais Theatre, Melbourne, on February 25 and 27


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