Salome by The Canadian Opera Company

After a charming brunch at La Palette on Queen West, Sally Hickson and I strolled to the Four Seasons Centre on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take my Art History Professor from University of Guelph to the Canadian Opera Company’s premiere of Atom Egoyan’s Salome. We walked the glass stairs and weaved through eager crowds before finding our seats through Door B at Ring 4.

I was looking forward to seeing my first theatre piece by famed Canadian (and local Torontonian) Director Atom Egoyan. My last encounter with Mr. Egoyan was at his gala premiere of Chloe at the Toronto Film Festival, which I adored. The COC’s Spring Season marks the return of Atom’s critically acclaimed production of Richard Strauss’s Salome. At the opera’s 1905 premiere, the audience and critics were shocked by its subject matter and erotic themes; Salome’s world of voyeurism and sexual abuse still elicits an equally visceral response today.

Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play, the opera recounts the ancient biblical story of Salome, who demands the head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in return for performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. She lives in a hedonistic royal court, with her perverse and shameless stepfather, Herod, and her imperious mother, Herodias. Salome’s desire for the imprisoned Jochanaan is mirrored by a soldier’s tortured infatuation of her, and Herod’s own lust for his stepdaughter. Consumed by morbid passion, the family is inevitably torn apart by its destructive obsessions.

Director Atom Egoyan has moved the setting of the opera from a first-century palace in the Holy Land to a foreboding and abstract environment, stripping away the markers affluence to focus on the characters themselves. The show starts with a cast dressed in grey suits and reminded me of an old mafia film with a dash of Dick Tracey. I couldn’t help but laugh as Herod’s bald mignons dressed in white oversized suits reminded me a bit of Colonel Sanders.

Multi-media elements, such as film, shadow puppetry and lighting effects stand out as the most moving and impactful. I was interested to see how Salome’s famous dance was going to be portrayed and was pleased to encounter a re-imagining of the Dance of the Seven Veils as a blend of modern dance, shadow puppets and cutting-edge cinematography to portray Salome’s vengeful persona as the result of a tragic loss of childhood innocence.

As with all things in life these days, I find food stories and grievances in the most unusual places. Salome officially demands Herod provide Jochanaan’s head on a sliver platter. Like everyone else in the packed theatre I was anticipating an elegant sliver platter to arrive on stage with a severed head, blood dripping to the floor. Instead I was disappointed by what seemed like a large plastic Ikea salad bowl. If I were Salome I would have been furious, “You bring me a bowl to toss a salad?” It sort of puts a damper on the rather decadent demand for the head of a Saint offered up on sliver.

Our Salome doesn’t seem to notice the difference between salad bowl and afternoon tea service silverware and with a strong grip grabs the severed head and proceeds to make out with his frosty, bloody lips. The audience receives an abrupt finish as Herod rings Salome’s neck with her mouth still fresh with the blood of Jochanaan. She flops over dead, a crimson red soaked doll as the curtain drops signalling that she is finished. 

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