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Salome: A brilliant Sinéad Campbell Wallace leads Irish National Opera’s perfectly judged production

Theatre: Richard Strauss’s tale of sex, violence, incest and necrophilia invites excess, but Bruno Ravella instead deploys restraint – to outstanding effect


Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin

Richard Strauss’s depiction of uncontrolled desire, based on the 1891 play by Oscar Wilde, was first performed in 1905. It retains the power to shock.

For Irish National Opera’s production, the director Bruno Ravella deploys restraint with great shock-preserving potency in a tale whose cocktail of sex, violence, incest and necrophilia invites excess. This restraint prevails as a man, King Herodes, ogles his teenage stepdaughter, the eponymous Salome, and as she in turn makes sexual approaches to Herodes’ prisoner, Jokanaan (John the Baptist). Restraint even characterises the famous dance that Salome eventually performs for her creepy stepfather.

And here there is a really special partnership between the choreographer Liz Roche and the brilliant Salome of the soprano Sinéad Campbell Wallace. The dance is supremely challenging: erotic, more than nine minutes long, obliging the audience to share the gaze of a man watching his stepdaughter, and requiring a singer with the mature capacity for Strauss’s enormous vocal demands to conjure a teenaged girl.

Sopranos sometimes opt for a double, but Campbell Wallace performs the dance herself. And she is hugely successful. She is naturally youthful, making the look the relatively easy part for her. But it is in the dance itself where she and Roche triumph. Instead of a pole-dance vibe it begins with an expressive sequence of elegant gestures in the hands and arms. Only gradually, and subtly, does the seductive element grow, with a brief glance towards Herodes, a small hip movement or a palm dragged across the wall. Even from the halfway point, after Herodes helps her out of her dress and she completes the dance in a white slip, it is understated.


Powerful understatement is, in fact, the key component of Campbell Wallace’s entire performance, married seamlessly to Ravella’s restraint. The Baptist, projected with intense inner strength by the baritone Tómas Tómasson, rejects Salome’s advances and withdraws to his cell. Ravella then leaves her seated centre-stage for almost 15 minutes, during which she contributes only a few terse lines. Yet a staring Campbell Wallace sustains a subtly, but grimly, implacable emotional isolation. There is understatement even in the way she scales the part’s vocal peaks, so you forget how hard it is. Even after Ravella climactically releases his restraint following the decapitation, and in the build-up to the appalling, blood-soaked kiss Salome gives the severed head, Campbell Wallace underplays it and leaves the outrage and horror to Strauss’s music and Ravella’s staging.

This is perfectly corroborated in the designs of Leslie Travers: the guards in contemporary camouflage and helmets, tails and white tie for Herodes and his guests, and a dazzling white set like the concave interior of a huge gun emplacement, centred by a large tree that rises to reveal a pool of shallow water. The lighting designer Ciarán Bagnall plays discreetly with reflections from the water and with characters’ shadows.

Herodes and Salome’s mother, Herodias, are persuasively played almost straight by the tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner and the mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm, and the conductor Fergus Sheil leads and controls the extravagance of Strauss’s magnificent, motif-laden score.

Salome, staged by Irish National Opera, continues at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on Thursday, March 14th, and Saturday, March 16th