After a year wading knee-deep in London's rich musical stimulation, I found myself rather bereft on this account, spending my summer in Taipei. However, my summer residency happened to coincide with the one (one!) opera production Taipei hosts every year. A highlight of the social calendar (or so I am told) a family member took pity on my moping self and invited me to see the opening night at Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall in central Taipei.
Admittedly, I approached the production with a great deal of apprehension. While I am far - believe me, very far - from a connoisseur of the musical arts, a large part of my operatic education has been held at Covent Garden which, I believed, left me rather spoiled. My first season had brought me the raptures of Kaufmann, Terfel, Calleja, Polenzani, Perez and Opolais and I feared that I would find fault in what in pedantic ways. I was to quickly repent of my prejudices.
Salome, a one act opera based on a biblical passage depicting the beheading of John the Baptist has a rather archaic story that requires thoughtful production and good acting to truly do both Strauss and Wilde justice. The demands of the titular role are similar to that of Turandot in both vocal and acting requirements. Both characters are distinctly rather unsympathetic - strong-willed, cruel women that require harshness to their vocal tone. Manuela Uhl, who played the role on this fine evening, was a revelation. In her first appearance, decadently draped in a crepe-like pink evening gown reminiscent of what us youngsters now carelessly refer to as the 'Gatsby-era', she stepped out in a shimmering, soft haze, as if we saw her basked in the glow of candlelight. Lovely - so, so lovely! was the thought that drifted indulgently through my mind. Her first few passages, the artful, knowing seduction of Narraboth to her bidding was saturated in a femininity most convincing. It was carefully nuanced - of course, only a fool would portray Salome as a wide-eyed ingenue, but there has to be power and an undertone of cruelty to her womanly charms, something substantial and robust. And Uhl's voice also delivered in spadefuls - at first oh-so-lyrical, like a Manon, like a Mimi, then it ripened and darkened with each passing exchange. Her battle of wills with Jochanaan was fearfully gripping - her perverse, dark fascination with the prophet, her stubborn proclamations of adoration was coloured with a wild, devout sense of foreboding. It was a deliberate, thoughtful performance - a quick glance at Uhl's performance history shows her to be intimately connected to Strauss - yet, despite this wealth of experience, no sense of staleness marred her lovely tone. Each increasingly frenzied refrain of 'I will deinen Mund küssen, Jochanaan,' was uttered in such a manner that caused one's stomach to coil as they watched on, repulsed yet compelled.
Prior to the performance, the section that I feared for the most was the famous 'Dance of Seven Veils'. The stage at the memorial hall is small, and I have seen too many prima donnas ungainly and ungraceful in even crossing from one side of the stage to the other, let alone successfully present an exotically dark and intoxicating dance of feminine wile and seduction. The symbolic and metaphorical climax of Strauss' dark creation, anything short of majestic simply would never suffice. Here, stage director Anthony Pilavachi's resourcefulness shone through. To aid Uhl, four dancers were summoned, slowly advancing, snake-like and cruel, until they surrounded Uhl in a spidery, hazy web of limbs. Like creatures of the underworld, they spread their wiry bodies across the stage in silent, haphazard patterns - a masterful foil to the dancing demands of Salome. Together, they wove a web of mysterious, sexualised power.
Although Uhl was the undisputed star of the evening, nearly every member of the cast rose with her powerful portrayal to put forth collectively robust performances. Antonio Yang, as Jochanaan, was a pleasant surprise. There is a warmth and serenity to his tone that befits a holy preacher, spreading easily to every corner of the (admittedly small) hall. When he issued prophetic warnings from his watery dungeon (and thereafter, grave), they rang out with urgent foreboding, commanding as though truly from the divine. Despite the character only appearing on stage for twenty odd minutes, his presence throughout was tangible. In terms of characterisation, Roswitha Müller's Herodias was delightful. Spiteful, sullen and vengeful, her cackling glee at the prophet's beheading was inspired as was her complex fear when she begged her daughter not to dance. Her Herodes, however, in Stuart Patterson fell somewhat short given the calibre of performances surrounding him. It is customary for Herodes to we portrayed in a comical light, but I do not agree that comedy should be stretched to the extent that it inflicts disbelief. His very stature was disconcerting - he appeared particularly diminutive against his female companions, which might have helped a nuanced portrayal of the fearful, greedy and superstitious hypochondriac of a monarch if the entire character had not been derided as a farce through his attire. When he first ambled down the staircase, plastic looking black cloak trailing in his wake, my mind immediately painted an unflattering likelihood to a camp Dracula - and from then on, my enthusiasm for the character was dampened significantly. In musical terms too he fell short of the high bar set by his peers - thin and reedy, his voice was at times inaudible over the full sound of the NSO.
Conducted and shepherded by Shao-Chia Lü, Taiwan's National Symphony Orchestra dispatched Strauss' relentless orchestration with terrific aplomb. Thoroughly accommodating to the singers, there was a united ebb and flow of emotion and discharge between stage and pit. And yet, there was never the sensation of being a secondary component - when the instrumentalists had solo passages, they delivered with strident zest and zeal, sweeping the audience into their midst of increasingly brusque runs and crescendos. During the Dance of the Seven Veils, the orchestra was as compelling, as wily a temptress as Uhl above them. It was their seduction as much as it was hers and, if I may speak for the audience collectively, we were defenceless against their combined charm.