English National Opera, London Coliseum, ★★★☆☆
IN Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, the heroine demands the head of John the Baptist on a plate. In Adena Jacobs’s new production at ENO Salome also gets a huge decapitated horse with an electric pink mane à la My Little Pony. When she disembowels the poor thing, sheaths of flowers spill out from its gut. It makes as much sense as anything else in Jacobs’s surreal staging, which is rescued by a dazzling performance from Scottish mezzo Allison Cook in the title role and superb conducting from Martyn Brabbins.
Cook, as lithe and trim as any Instagram Influencer, holds nothing back on stage. Whether twirling her hair in coy innocence, or twerking at Herod, or waving her breasts at Jokanaan the Baptist, she gives a powerful account of an utterly damaged and compromised character, whose only weapon in a hostile world is her body.
Cook’s clean and focussed voice is on the small side for this notoriously demanding role, but her sizzling stage presence is a huge compensation, and Brabbins accompanies her with wonderful sensitivity. He never drowns her, but still gives the excellent orchestra plenty of chances to let rip and relish Strauss’s luscious orchestration.
The other members of the cast are not quite up to the same level. David Soar is an underpowered Jokanaan, and is also hampered by a camera frame over his mouth, which makes him look a bit like Hannibal Lecter. Michael Colvin has fun as a childish, cross-dressing Herod, and Susan Bickley makes an unusually downtrodden Herodias. It’s to the director’s credit that she draws such a memorable performance from Allison Cook, but the lack of detail in characterisation of the other roles (and the ‘huh? what?’ staging) are disappointing drawbacks.