Déjà Egoyan

The title is ambiguous, meaning several things.

  • I am writing again about an Egoyan, this time Atom, after two recent rhapsodic pieces about his sister (concert & CD review)
  • Egoyan returns again to Strauss’s Salome, a modified revival of a production we saw before at the big old theatre
  • For the second time this spring, a Canadian Opera Company production probes the psychology of the female protagonist.  How similar are Lucia and Salome? They both look good in red. Hmmm

I loved Egoyan’s work on Die Walküre and was very happy with his work on Martin Crimp’s Cruel & Tender for Canadian Stage in 2012.  Next year he’ll be back to direct Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte for the COC.  Before I get too analytical (and explain why I am not quite so thrilled with the production) I want to properly acknowledge brilliance in the COC Salome.  Vocally & musically the COC continue to soar.  Conductor Johannes Debus continues where he left off in Tristan und Isolde, leading a wonderful ensemble in the pit and on the stage, including a marvelous reading of the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Richard Margison as Herod (photo by Chris Hutcheson)

Richard Margison’s Herod surprised me even if I always hoped he’d branch out.  I suppose I never expected him to try this sort of role.  While Margison’s known for leading roles in French & Italian rep (where I didn’t think the fit was ideal) I was enthused by his interpretations of Florestan (2009), Bacchus (2011) or Vitek (a 1990 video of The Makropoulos Case directed my Lotfi Mansouri that I saw on TV long ago).  The voice is as powerful as ever, the top effortless, the pitch precise as a laser-beam.  But Margison brought a fascinating sense of irony to a role that’s often turned into a grotesque, snarled & sneered.  When Herod appeared, the stage came to life, animated not just by the voice & precise musicianship, but a relentless energy, and a curious mixture of macho posturing and playful sounds.

Erika Sunnegårdh brings a youthful presence and a wonderful voice to the title role, although she didn’t face the usual big challenge sopranos face in Salome, namely the Dance of the Seven Veils, except for a few seconds being raised into the air on a swing, her veils then supplying projection surfaces for moving images & shadow puppetry.    While there have been heavier voices in the role (for example Birgit Nilsson in the seminal Decca recording conducted by Georg Solti) I think Sunnegårdh’s sound is just what Strauss sought in the role.

Hanna Schwarz makes more of Herodias than most, not just in her powerful voice.  Salome’s mother approves of the deal her daughter has made with her husband, pulling the ring from his finger to facilitate the execution; but Schwarz jumps into the action, participating in the final tableau by delivering the executioner’s handiwork to her daughter.  And Martin Gantner is wonderful as Jochanaan,  gorgeous sounding and always fascinating to watch.

Salome is an opera that can be a freak-show, a parade of grotesque and bizarre behaviours.  I don’t understand what Egoyan’s production aims for, as it subverts the edginess that’s in the text for no clear benefit.  Let me illustrate:

  • The biblical tale of Salome and John the Baptist is updated at least in its costuming, as the soldiers, Jews & Nazarenes are in jackets & ties, Narraboth using a pistol instead of a knife when he kills himself, Herod apparently snorting coke at one point when he attempts to dissuade his step-daughter from asking for the prophet’s head.  But if you modernize the story, what do you get exactly? This past week I was looking at dead bodies on TV, and on the way home I saw slutty kids on Yonge St hanging out of their dresses.  When “normal” is edgier than anything in the production (as it seems to be anytime you turn on the TV), you modernize at your peril.
  • Narraboth as the role is written is a voyeur who’s so pathetically hooked on Salome that he’d risk his position by disobeying Herod in ordering Jochanaan brought up from the cistern where he’s imprisoned,for a mere smile and possibly a flower.  Egoyan gives us a modern Narraboth who has a woman draped all over him.  If Narraboth can get all that, why would he kill himself over Salome’s smile & flower (and while the woman’s draped all over him)? Sorry it makes no sense, except as gratuitous action that only serves to undercut and upstage Salome’s scene with Jochanaan.  And it’s rather odd that John is cursing Salome for wanting to (horrors) kiss him, when there’s a decidedly x-rated display 30 feet away.  The show upstages itself, mocking the moments that purport to be climaxes in the text & music.
  • The Dance of the Seven Veils?  In the previous production I think this was much the same, really, although this time the emphases are changed, with nice new shadow puppets and some soft-core images.  This is where I see the connection to Lucia by the way.  Just as David Alden sought to probe the psychology of the title role, so too with Egoyan.  In both cases we’re presented with images of abuse.  In Alden’s case it makes some sense, that Lucia becomes a basket case at the hands of her brother.  But what was Egoyan thinking?  However one decodes this Dance –whether it’s a flash-back to a rape or a metaphor—I would love to ask him what he thinks this means.  No rape victim gets the urge to take their clothes off and dance for someone: the way Salome does for Herod.  I always understood Salome’s dance as an exercise of power over her uncle, revenge possibly for his constant voyeurism, but mostly an opportunity she seizes, a larger scale version of what she did with Narraboth at the beginning of the opera (when she uses her beauty to get her way).  This is a child who has been brought up without proper parental authority; I regret to say that I’ve met kids like this, who are out of control because nobody ever says “no” to them.

To suggest that Salome is a victim fundamentally problematizes the opera, takes the usual freak-show into new territory.  Perhaps I should seek out a feminist reading of this text, but I don’t see where Egoyan’s reading is feminist.  Why can’t this woman be powerful? (and isn’t that what a feminist reading would normally aim for, notwithstanding her horrific actions) What is gained by making her a victim?  I don’t understand how one moment she’s on the floor, moments after we’ve seen her sexually assaulted, and the next moment she’s asking for John’s head.  Wilde (in the play that the opera is based upon) and Strauss do kill her off at the end, because she’s what Herod calls a monster.  Why undercut that?  Why direct the opera at all if you want to turn the opera on its head? Pardon me, I believe in director’s theatre, but more than a decade after the first time I saw this reading, I am still trying to make sense out of it.  In the big old theatre I was merely confused.  In the gorgeous little theatre, where it’s right under my nose? I can’t shrug it off the way I used to in the old opera house.  I want to understand this as intelligent directorial choices, not someone taking sand paper to all the edges in the work, turning it into equivocal mediocre nothing.  Yes I was delighting in Sunnegårdh’s marvellous high notes, Schwarz’s stunning sound & presence, watching Margison’s fascinating work in the last minute, and listening to the orchestra’s fabulous sound.

And yet as we came to the end I was squirming in my seat, wanting to go home.

I recall after seeing the earlier production I had a silly fantasy that I wanted to share with Egoyan, which I’ll now repeat in this public forum.  I thought that Narraboth should carry a hand-held camera as he stalks Salome.  Cute idea?  And Herod should be a movie mogul.  That’s a modern version of what he is in the biblical story, and would justify all the drugs and silliness that’s in the story.  I think that would be way more fun.

But it sounds amazing and I confess it’s fascinating viewing.  Salome continues until May 22nd.  Click the picture below for ticket information.

Richard Margison as Herod and Hanna Schwarz as Herodias in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013. Photo: Chris Hutcheson. (click for more information)

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