Starring Cheryl Barker, John Wegner et al; Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House, October 12

“She is a monster, your daughter,growls Herod, and from the moment this monster demurely asks for the head of John the Baptist onwards, Cheryl Barker gives a suitably terrifying performance as Strauss’ morally depraved and sexually confused teenage siren. If you can make it through to the final half hour of Gale Edward’s incoherent grab-bag of a production you will find yourself amply compensated, but that’s quite a big “if”. 

Edwards’ version of Salome isn’t particularly shocking (it has far less blood than John Doyle’s recent Lucia) but crucially it lacks any overarching idea, coming across as a series of problem-solving exercises rather than a cohesive piece of theatre. The notorious Dance of the Seven Veils is a good example. Here Strauss has provided a single sexually charged musical arc, from slow, sexy start through to percussively frenzied ending. Edwards spares Barker the nine-minute choreographic ordeal in favour of presenting a series of typical male fantasies for Herod’s evident arousal. Not a bad solution – the pole dancer and Marilyn Monroe sequences work moderately well – but the French maid and stripping Virgin Mary are mere Carry On campery and crucially break any sense of the erotic build. Barker’s final reappearance for a brief Dancing With The Stars twirl is far from the climax the music demands. 

Brian Thomson’s lurid setting is effective, if somewhat crude. Herod and his guests are apparently feasting in a slaughterhouse, backed by a row of suspended carcasses while Jokanaan’s cistern is based on the blood drainage hole in an actual abattoir. Julie Lynch’s costumes are a terrible mess – a tacky mix of 1980s pop-video and Mardi Gras parade.  Soldiers are dressed in gaudy fatigue pants, sporting starship trooper tops, while poor Cheryl Barker spends the first hour looking like Sarah Brightman in one of her more frightful operatic fantasies. “Never look encouragingly at the brass,” was Strauss’ famous remark. In this case I would say the same with respect to the costume designer. 

All is not lost, however, as the orchestral contribution is first-rate. Johannes Fritzsch doesn’t put a foot wrong with the pacing of Strauss’ lush score and, despite some awkward moments in the brass, the evening is quite a triumph for the pit. The Opera House acoustic mush provides the usual hindrance but Fritzsch generally works wonders in bringing out detail and is always sympathetic to his singers. 

For Barker, the opera is very much a game of two halves. Initially, her unsympathetic costuming and contrived girlish gestures maintain a frustrating barrier to characterisation and as she tends to sing front-on in the presence of Jokanaan, there is little sense of crucial erotic attraction. The voice is in excellent form however, losing power a little in the lower register but easily able at ride the big climaxes at the top end. The extended bottom register is fine too and diction, as ever with Barker, is exemplary. 

Not exactly the “young man” the soldiers describe, John Wegner manages to convey the erotic charge of a Rasputin, looking pale and intriguing and capturing the sense of the character’s interior life. The voice is sufficiently on the money and despite occasional tiredness (and a couple of missing curses) his interpretation of the text is compelling. John Pickering in gold lamé jacket and ill-fitting toupée makes a faintly ridiculous game show host of a Herod and, although musically a little ill at ease, he gets the words across. Jacqueline Dark’s magnificently sung Herodias is a luxury in an opera where the role traditionally goes to a legendary singer past her vocal prime. Sadly, though, she too is saddled with a Hammer Horror costume, and despite some finely nuanced acting the outfit frequently reduces a three-dimensional performance to two. 

The supporting cast is uniformly good, from David Corcoran’s firm, ardently sung Narraboth to some excellent Nazarenes and Jews (the latter’s ecumenical debate a surprising comical delight and musical highlight). 

For the final half-hour, however, there is a dramatic transformation. With her hair down and wearing a simple black dress, Barker looks 20 years younger. With focus now entirely on her grisly objective, what was merely play-acting becomes riveting theatre and the final monologue is entirely superb. You can’t help thinking that this is the show we could have had from the start, if only Edwards had trusted in the old adage that less is more.

Salome runs until November 3 at the Sydney Opera House, and from December 1 – 15 at The Arts Centre, Melbourne. View event details here.