The eyes. The detached, mud-ringed empty eyes, a colossal projected image overseeing the collapse of sanity in a frenzied psychotic world.
Debuting as a biting one-act play by Oscar Wilde in 1892, ferociously set by Richard Strauss a decade later, Salome, a savagely reimagined retelling of the bloody Biblical tale of aberrant desire and bloody slaughter, probes deep beneath the human cortex to the centre of a raging nightmare.
Reprised in a fourth grisly, unblinking re-enactment of prolific writer/director Atom Egoyan’s grim psychological dissection of sex, power and depravity, the Canadian Opera Company’s current remount bathes the Four Season Centre in primal darkness flashed with all too familiar eruptions of violence and evil.
Egoyan’s screen work, particularly his three early pre-millennium features — Exotica (1994), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Felicia’s Journey (1999) — form something of an enduring artistic frame around Salome. First presented by the COC in 1996, the result of a performative, creator-specific commission by then General Director Richard Bradshaw, Egoyan’s treatment of the sharp, super-saturated modernist opera classic reflects a wide range of the acclaimed Canadian filmmaker’s trademark cinematic constructs.
The act of watching, of bearing witness with or without comprehending. Of observing and/or being observed. Of looking, wide-eyed or blinded, inwards, outwards or both simultaneously. Our primary alert for fight or flight is forever under scrutiny. Called into question. Tested for reliability.
The two-way mirrors in the sleazy strip club that is Exotica betray all and nothing of the complexity of a father’s unbearable grief following the senseless murder of his 8-year old daughter and his desperation to cling to an agonizing memory of a horrific past.
Intense scrutiny, whether undertaken by the naked eye by first hand observers or preserved as visual media, notably home movies and video, occupies a high degree of prominence in Egoyan’s work.
Du solist sie nicht ansehen! Fortwährend siehst du sie an! (“You must not look at her! You are always looking at her!”), shudders Herodias, mother to Salome, wife to Herod. The impulse is too intoxicating for the leering tetrarch of Judea to resist. Like Strauss and Wilde before him, Egoyan draws out the moment to its hideous conclusion. There can be no turning away from reality, however shocking or traumatic. No hiding behind emotional scrims. A film projector blazes to life. A child laughs and swings. Suddenly she is gone. All is blinding white light and looming shadow. A trio of menacing assailants appears. Hulking. Voracious. The little girl, become a young woman, struggles to break free as they surround her. There is no escape. She is consumed.
Treated as backstory, Salome’s infamous Dance of the Seven Veils is given a bitter, ironic reading here, becoming more delayed overture than intermezzo, Strauss’ pulsing score speaking not of polished seduction but vicious sexual assault.
Like so many events that comprise seemingly chaotic patterns of action in Egoyan’s cinéma surprise — the deliberately fragmented story arc of Exotica, the knotty thread of The Sweet Hereafter, the shuffled narrative of Felicia’s Journey — time unfolds elliptically, flashing backwards in a stunning jump cut, then hurtling forward again on cue. Insight and explanation are the products of the editing suite in Egoyan’s film factory, clues to understanding apportioned bit by bit with agonizing suspense in tortuously taut, non-linear fashion. This fractious, shattered Salome is informed by a strikingly similar set of principles.
The inescapable grip of memory and loss, bittersweet and arresting, haunts Egoyan’s work. Photographs fill frame after frame of The Sweet Hereafter, households crowded with heartbreaking images. 14 dead children killed in a horrendous school bus accident. Joe Hilditch, the mundane serial killer from Felicia’s Journey, scarred and abused by his mother, a former TV celebrity, as a boy, cooks and devours outrageously elaborate meals while gorging on taped reruns of her decades old cooking show. Anything to feel completed, to claw back innocence.
Visuals wield enormous power. Pictures in picture. Characters retreat deep into their psyches. Engulfed by their demons. Fighting to salvage their souls.
Trapped in Set Designer Derek McLane’s joyless pleasure palace, caught in Lighting Designer Michael Whitfield’s unforgiving spotlights, Salome sprawls at Herod’s feet in an attitude of practiced weariness, body mirroring the tilted, mad pitch of the stage — unmoving, despondent, uncaring. An eternity passes. Virtually no one moves. Quintessential Egoyan, his respect for the craft of acting, film and stage, positively palpable.
Appearing in the title role, Toronto-based soprano Ambur Braid triumphs in an intensely physical performance of inexhaustible virtuosity and commitment. Strauss’ music is stupendously demanding, shimmering and luminous, slashing and dissonant, synced to the propulsive beats of Wilde’s swirling libretto. Braid meets each fresh challenge with a potent demonstration of flawless dramatic technique nowhere more evident than in her exceptionally compelling handling of Strauss’ notoriously twisted liebestod, Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund kussen lassen, Jochanaan! (“Ah! Thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jochanaan!”).
Tenor Michael Schade contributes a fine impactful Herod, his clear, ringing timbre and lofty reach an ideal match for the twitchy, high-strung, drug-addicted ruler, dissolute and paranoiac and supremely out of control. A masterful performance by a commanding singer actor.
World soprano Karita Mattila is Herodias. Strauss offers the character scant opportunity for dynamic solo turns, demanding instead a consistency of tone and unwavering understatement, tricky stylistic attributes Mattila quite clearly possesses in abundance. Ensemble moments with Schade positively crackle, the toxicity that fuels her character —disgust for her depraved spouse, accompanied by a dangerous excess of pride — dotting every note.
Tenor Frédéric Antoun is a bright, morally malleable young Narraboth, strapping Captain of the Guard.
Baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky sings a suitably imperious Jochanaan, more growly than stentorian.
Owen McCausland, Michael Colvin, Jacques Arsenault, Adam Luther and Giles Tomkins are the Five Jews, period stereotypes, certainly. But not without a pronounced degree of dash and overarching operatic panache when inhabited by the aforementioned four bickering tenors and lone steadfast bass-baritone. Scrambling to best each other theologically, the quarrelsome ensemble provides a welcome moment of snappy, quick-witted relief. The theatrical timing is impeccable.
Conducting a massively enhanced Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, resident Music Director Johannes Debus leads with great flair and dexterity, the playing, as demanded by Strauss, lyrical and nuanced at times, chromatic and explosive at others, the composer’s churning score rolling through the FSC in restless waves.
In the spring of 2022, with the pandemic still in full-blown global crisis mode, the Canadian Opera Company released Atom Egoyan’s latest foray into the opera world, a custom-crafted, techno-tinted film rendering of Béla Bartók’s early 20th century gothic thriller, Bluebeard’s Castle. It was a bold experiment, summoning scenes from Egoyan’s own darkly psychological Felicia’s Journey by way of literal backdrop. The result was an excrutiatingly emotional cinematic diptych.
Film to opera to opera film. We need more leaps of imagination. More Bluebeards. More Salomes. More Egoyan.