David McVicar’s ravishingly lurid 2008 production of Strauss’s Salome for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden has been issued as an HD-filmed DVD from Opus Arte.  Now, Strauss’s music is ravishingly lurid on its own, so I came to this production, which claims as a visual source reference the Pasolini film Salo, The 120 Days of Sodom, with some trepidation about “ugly image overload.”

The fact is, McVicar’s production does have its over-the-top moments, but it is well thought out, visually magnificent, reasonably well conducted, and strongly cast.  It works, because cast, musicians, and director have completely bought into McVicar’s fascinating ideas and bring a strong level of commitment to even the smallest of roles.

The Euro-fascist 30’s setting is certainly not a new notion, but here we have the bowels of a debauched mansion where violence and sexual energy are palpable.  Set designer Es Devlin uses a demented “Upstairs/Downstairs” conceit (or Upstairs/Downstairs/Really Downstairs if you include Jokanaan’s cistern) where we see a lavish dinner party hosted by Herod on an upper floor, connecting to the downstairs basement/ kitchen area by a huge metallic staircase.  Beginning with Salome, the decadent party guests come slumming downstairs, which is populated by servants, slaves, guards, and their whores.  The world of the production unfolds beautifully and consistently with Strauss’ disturbing and lush music.  Wolfgang Gobbel’s lighting is moody and haunting.

Soprano Nadja Michael gives a remarkable, psychologically nuanced performance in the title role.  There is no doubt that she has occasional intonation problems, particularly in the upper range; nevertheless, these are quibbles when taken in the context of her brilliant characterization.  Michael has a powerful, focused soprano, here used with variety and expert phrasing to show the slow deterioration of Salome’s mind and lust.  Michael has a deeply expressive body, with the grace of a trained dancer and the ability to make very telling physical choices.  She can be girlish, innocent, willful, sexually frenzied, manipulative and possessed of deep longing.  Her moment-to-moment acting makes every element of this complex character come to vivid life.  Her vocal choices can caress like a glove or cut like a knife.  She is clearly a stage animal, and, in this performance, is utterly riveting both vocally and histrionically.

Michael Volle’s Jokanaan is well-acted and sung, though he is lost at times in Phillippe Jordan’s sometimes overpowering orchestral choices.  There is a very interesting moment when Jokanaan seems to waver, seems to find some perverse attraction to the Judean princess.  He quickly suppresses this instinct, however, and gives a moving story of Jesus in Galilee, while pressing Salome’s forehead like a modern evangelical preacher.

Thomas Moser starts as an effete and overly light Herod, but slowly transforms into a harrowing lecher.  Moser sings the role with unusual lyricism, and is surprisingly agile for a man of his girth.  His participation in the Dance of the Seven Veils (more about this below) is one of the finest dramatic moments of the production.  He is well matched by the lusty Herodias of Micaela Schuster, who brings an appealing vulnerable, baffled quality to the morally bankrupt wife.

The smaller roles are all cast from strength, though I wonder if Joseph Kaiser is becoming a bit tired of his frequent Narraboths—he seemed rather whiny and listless here.  Particularly strong were the two soldiers of Christian Sist and Alan Ewing.  The non-singing role of Naaman the executioner was chillingly played by the muscular Duncan Meadows, frightening in his stillness and powerful in his focus, even when he goes naked into the cistern and emerges covered in blood with the head of Jokanaan.

The Dance of the Seven Veils was McVicar’s finest moment of the evening, not so much a dance as a journey through the various stages of Salome’s emerging madness.  Taking place in seven rooms enhanced by projections, the dance begins with an infantilized Salome playing at rag dolls and sitting erotically on Herod’s lap.  We move through other rooms where Herod undresses and re-dresses the princess and then the two engage in a strange waltz, Herod becoming more demanding and harder to deny in each proceeding room.  Clearly McVicar is implying an abusive sexual relationship, peaking in a blackout at the end of the Dance, where Salome re-enters in a state of shocked exhaustion.  This entire scene is riveting, deeply disturbing, and absolutely fascinating.

The final scene is extremely graphic, and perverse in the extreme; still, Nadja Michael’s utter commitment to every moment makes it work.  The final touch is Naaman’s killing of Salome by snapping her neck.

This production, despite some rather clunky conducting by Jordan that had great climaxes but little texture, grabs the audience by the throat and never lets go.

The DVD issue also includes a separate disc entitled David McVicar: A Work in Process. It is an unusually detailed and interesting account of the design and rehearsal process for this Salome and a wonderful insight into McVicar’s thought process.