Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Some Reflections on Singapore Lyric Opera's Salome

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre
Monday 22 August 2011

Back in 2004, when I was still a board member of the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO), I had mooted that the company take a change in its direction by producing Richard Strauss’s Salome in 2005 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its first performance. At that time, there was only one orchestra in Singapore that could have pulled it off – the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Then questions arose as to a possible collaboration between SLO and SSO: Who was to conduct? Which organisation was to appoint the Director? And casting? And given the tepid relationship between two of Singapore’s premier musical organisations, the idea was soon dead in the water.

Seven years down the road, the SLO has an orchestra to call its own, largely due to the fact that Singapore now has enough professional level players to fill several orchestras. This was the reason why the orchestra that played from the pit of Esplanade Theatre for this year’s landmark Salome did not have screechy strings, scrawny reeds or off-pitch brass. If anything, conductor Peter Selwyn had a wonderfully fluid orchestra to work with, which contributed to the strengths of this Salome.

Make no mistake, this has to be one of the SLO’s greatest productions in its 21 year history. The casting was unusually strong, headed by Janice Watson in the titular role. Although director Andrew Sinclair made a strong case for Salome being a victim of her dysfunctional upbringing and circumstance, Watson’s portrayal of petulance and single-minded doggedness showed that she knew exactly what she was doing, and consequences be damned. Her repeated refrain of “Give me the head of Jokanaan!” rang like a mantra, and the audience lapped it up whenever the words appeared on the surtitle screen. Her moves were more cat-like rather than girlish, with seduction verging on psychosis, and finally crossing the line. The infamous Dance of the Seven Veils was assisted by six topless male dancers in Gani Karim’s very effective choreography, all very strategically placed as the last vestment came off, thus preventing this production from creeping into the R(A) category.

Opposite her, Dawid Kimberg’s Jokanaan was a youthful and heroic presence, which for some reason did not garner as much sympathy as John the Baptist normally would. Perhaps he was too self-righteous and judgmental. By the time his head was delivered on a silver platter (courtesy of Madame Tussaud’s), it had grown a moustache! Has there been an opera where every character was so dislikeable? Herod was whiny and neurotic, perfectly portrayed by a snivelling Hubert Francis (above), and opposite him the scheming and unforgiving Herodias convincingly played by Bernadette Cullen (below).

Although the main cast was imported, there were several Singaporeans and locally based singers in minor roles. Melvin Tan as the First Jew provided comic relief as he debated with his bevy of lawmakers, while Anna Koor played a surprisingly tomboyish page to Herodias. William Lim (First Soldier), Martin Ng (Firzt Nazarene and Cappadocian) and Reuben Lai (Second Nazarene) made up the numbers. All of them acquitted themselves well.

The sets were kept simple, and Sinclair’s direction was faultless in every detail. The two hours (with thankfully no intermission) passed smoothly and very quickly, building up to a terrific climax and Salome’s demise. On the first night, there was a blackout in the orchestra pit (rumour has it that an errant handphone plugged into a wrong socket had caused a short circuit), which led to the opera being started all over again. But no such worries on the third night.

The audience for this production was disappointingly small. It will take some time for the Singapore audience to realise that grand opera is not just about La Traviata, La Boheme or Carmen, but a world of discovery far wider than most can possibly imagine. The SLO is encouraged to continue producing operas outside of the Mozart-Verdi-Puccini axis without fear nor favour. And the powers that be should increase its annual support for a budget that can do three or more major productions a year, now that this company can be trusted on putting up a truly great show.

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