Review: Atom Egoyan's SALOME Is A Dark, Twisted Descent Into Tragedy

The Canadian Opera Company's production runs through February 24th.

By: Feb. 14, 2023
Review: Atom Egoyan's SALOME Is A Dark, Twisted Descent Into Tragedy
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The story of a doomed, distorted princess from biblical infamy makes for an uncomfortable, heavy watch. It also makes for incredible operatic moments, and a gripping, sensory experience, all in under two hours.

Directed by Atom Egoyan, this dark production tells the biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist (referred to here by his German moniker, Jochanaan) by order of the princess of Judea, Salome. It's a twisted, macabre story of desire, rejection, and death that ends badly for all involved - but in Egoyan's production, it's the kind of tragedy you can't look away from, no matter how gruesome it gets.

Salome (Ambur Braid) appears during a party at her stepfather Herod's (Michael Schade) palace. Away from the main gathering, she hears the preaching of Jochanaan (Michael Kupfer-Radecky) who has been imprisoned. Fascinated by his words, she demands to see him, and when she does and deems him beautiful, tries to convince him to love her. When that fails and he's returned to his cell, Salome carries her vendetta when the leering Herod promises her whatever she wants if she'll dance. What Salome asks for when her performance is through is the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter - and what she wants, she eventually gets.

Braid is phenomenal as the spoiled, scarred princess. There are layers to her that Braid manages to unravel, piece by piece, over the 1 hour 40 minute opera. Her clear voice brings beautiful arias to life, but her acting is what tells the real story of the character. Wide, childlike eyes and an unsettling ability to stagger and exaggerate her movements makes this Salome prime material for an antagonist; despite that, the references to Salome's past abuse show her as more than a vengeful spirit. Her actions - though reprehensible - make sense, thanks to the work Braid puts in to explain Salome to the audience.

As Jochanaan, Kupfer-Radecky delivers a passionate performance within the smaller period he's actually visible. As a disembodied voice, his words are striking, but once he's brought before Salome, Kupfer-Radecky shows great physicality in how he carries Jochanaan while giving a strong vocal performance. Salome's parents, her biological mother Herodias (Karita Mattila) and Herod, who has eyes for his stepdaughter despite his wife's presence and demanding that he stops are great antagonistic forces. Schade's Herod is clearly a man who's never been told no, and he plays him at first like a cartoonish villain; all hot air, bragging and leering at Salome and his staff. He's an intimidating presence right through until Schade depicts his reaction to Salome's murderous request, and then he reveals a more complex, desperate look into the king. Mattila is stellar as well, with constant strong vocal performances coupled with great character acting. The cast is filled out otherwise with a solid ensemble of performers, all who bring the right amount of energy - sometimes manic, sometimes docile - to this heavy work.

As this production was conceptualized by Egoyan, known for his extensive catalog of films, there is a significant amount of video within this SALOME. What he manages to do is incorporate the filmed components alongside live acting seamlessly. Filmed scenes at the opening of the opera set the tone for who Salome is, how she's seen by the household, and where the action opens to. Dismembered shots of Jochanaan's face during his preaching foreshadows his bloody end. The depiction of Salome's dance begins with what looks like a home video of Salome on a backyard swing set. The scene shifts into shadow work (shadow design by Clea Minaker) featuring a striking silhouetted live performance by Miyeko Ferguson, where Salome's dance is performed, along with a frightening depiction of her assault at the hands of a group of men. It's stressful, and executed brilliantly because of the choice to not only include what's considered an iconic operatic dance work, but to give even more insight into the character before she dives into her deepest, darkest moments.

Led by conductor Johannes Debus, Strauss's music is an awe-inspiring force. From the prettier, more fairytale-esque movements to the harsh, slightly dissonant pieces, the music becomes a character itself. The score itself is highly cinematic at moments, too, lending it nicely to the film-esque take on SALOME presented here by Egoyan.

This SALOME deals with heavy, disturbing content and the warnings provided should be heeded. It modernizes the story in parts, bringing film in as a way of giving more context to certain things; the idea of being watched, leered at, monitored is not just applied to Salome under Herod's control. Instead, the catwalk above the stage (set design by Derek McLane) is used by guards as they keep tabs on the household. The angled set and walls make it feel like a decrepit dollhouse, where the characters are watched by the audience, and toyed with by the narrative and each other. Ensemble members record Salome with handheld cameras, documenting her every move to be replayed back for someone else's entertainment.

SALOME doesn't reduce its titular character to the demanding, unrelatable princess she could be - it fleshes her out, gives her motivation and autonomy, and allows her to act as depravedly as she wants. It doesn't make her actions right, but it does help to keep her empathetic, which is all one can really ask for with subject matter like SALOME's.


The Canadian Opera Company's SALOME runs through February 24 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St W, Toronto.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.coc.ca/productions/23495

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Editors Note: This article has been updated to correct accreditation of the Dance of the Seven Vails performance to the dancer Miyeko Ferguson.




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