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"Salome" in Therapy

Atom Egoyan and the COC deliver a Dance of the Seven Veils fit for our times

WORDS BY MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK | Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

FEB 08, 2023 | COMMUNITY

Ambur Braid as Salome (front) and Karita Mattila as Herodias (back) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2023, Photo by Michael Cooper
Atom Egoyan by Kalya Ramu for smART Magazine - Issue 4 & Ambur Braid by Jeremy Lewis for smART Magazine - Issue 1
Ambur Braid as Salome (top left), Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Jochanaan (below), and Frédéric Antoun as Narraboth (top right) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2023, Photo by Michael Cooper

It’s been almost 30 years since Atom Egoyan’s vision of Salome debuted at the Canadian Opera Company (COC), and while that is but a blip in opera time, 30 years is a long time by the metrics of this burgeoning multimedia approach to reimagining the operatic canon. Speak to most members of the emerging generation of opera directors and they’d be happy to tell you how mixing video and projections into an otherwise static mise-en-scène is soooo mid 2000’s. I concur. The trend of interlacing the on-stage action with contrasting (read: distracting) material pasted upon an antiquated plot had its peak about a decade ago, thanks in part to visionaries like Egoyan. These days, jaded as we are by all manners of screens large and small, the milieu is trending back towards what has always made opera work: damn good singing served on the platter of a cohesive directorial vision. I’ll get to the singing shortly, but Egoyan’s vision of a cerebral Salome under contemporary scrutiny is the rising tide that lifts every boat on stage. It seems the energy and attention that otherwise should have gone into revitalizing the slightly dated video projections that appear intermittently throughout the production, went towards a psychological investigation of the titular character’s traumatic childhood. Despite the yesteryear-hued cinematography, this production is a masterclass in how to comprehensively and artfully interrogate the often fatal demise of opera’s femme fatales.

When, in 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote the one-act play which Richard Strauss later adapted to an opera, the public consciousness was at a far less critical distance to Freudian psychoanalysis than we are now. While several generations of psychological theories and revisions of Freudianism seem to have relegated his ideas to little more than gross simplifications of complex mechanisms of the psyche, our current collective understanding of mental health — and the profound influence of childhood trauma — is arguably Freudian. Instead of the usual conception of Salome as a protracted set-up to the infamous climax of the “Dance of the Seven Veils”, this production — set in what looks like a bespoke psychiatric sanatorium where the patients are in charge — opted to unveil the grotesque gaze of the audience to this dance. As a psychological investigation, Egoyan and crew managed to deliver a hair-raising spectacle — dancer Miyeko Ferfuson is a compelling force — while simultaneously undermining the presupposed innocence and neutrality of the spectator. Through the use of silhouettes, forced perspectives in the shadow work that make the dancer shift from gargantuan to childlike proportions in a flash, and projections of an adolescent girl returning the gaze of the audience, this “Dance of the Seven Veils” is less about seduction than it is a sort of exorcism of childhood trauma. King Herod — voiced and embodied flawlessly by tenor Michael Schade — is implicated as the main source of this trauma, but so too is every member of this psychiatric-ward-cum-palace. The production’s consistent fixation on childhood, on the helpless girl rather than the seductive woman, rescued it from the femme fatale trope and made it wholly digestible by our increasing appetite to nurture the child that is nested in every adult.

Salome at the COC continues till February 24th.

If anything, Egoyan has not gone far enough in this psychological investigation. Inasmuch as Salome is a vivisection of the drooling male gaze, and this production is a multimedia finger in the eye of our voyeuristic culture of anonymous observers, then the concept behind this production is more relevant now than it was in 1996. In 2019, OnlyFans — a used platform primarily for the dissemination of semi-pornographic content — generated a revenue of 270 million US dollars from its mostly-male and wholly anonymous subscription base. That number was 4.8 billion US dollars in 2021. Nothing wrong, of course, with consenting adults creating content for paying customers, but we can’t deny what an unprecedented dynamic platforms like these have introduced into the long and intractable history of the male gaze. Even the boiler plate of Oscar Wilde’s Salome is already incredibly relevant to our modern landscape, add to that plate Egoyan’s insinuations of this obsession with looking, and you’ve got an opera that is more relevant now than before the ink dried on Strauss’s scores. There is ample space, in the next iteration of this uniquely Egoyan Salome, to bring this production’s concept into closer proximity with our rapidly evolving contemporary situation.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2023, Photo by Michael Cooper

With so much of this production resting on the churning of the title character’s internal gears, so much in turn falls on the shoulders of soprano Ambur Braid’s Salome, along with the more than stellar supporting cast. In short: at least for the foreseeable future, Salome belongs to Braid. Her Salome is captivating not merely because it meets and returns the aforementioned gaze, but because she so completely embodies the multidimensional character that is demanded by a feminist revision of opera’s famously ill-fated women. Add to that the challenge that this particular set poses for the singer: there’s nowhere to hide on the raked and austere stage, no significant scene changes, and very little movement aside from the wheeling of a gurney from which Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s Jochanaan emerges and some oranges bumbling down the incline. It’s the same raked stage that Director James Robinson used for the COC’s Elektra (also Strauss) in 2018. Like Christine Goerke’s Elektra, Braid’s Salome is an electrifying study in vocal virtuosity and meticulously detailed acting fit for a close-up. Next to her, Kupfer-Radecky is a relentless force as a tortured sage, while Karita Matilla’s Herodia echoes Salome’s longingness at a soulfully jaded frequency. Somehow, Michael Schade chizels out a humorous side to his Herod, building pathos for a character that is scheduled for none─neither on paper nor in the specific context of Egoyan’s critical vision.