by Rachel Beaumont

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The prickly princess: Salome at the ROH

The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Orchestra Stalls B1, £15 (staff offer)
23 January 2018
ROH page

Malin Byström’s performance of Salome neatly manifests and magnifies the internal contradictions suggested at in her many recent Royal Opera roles, including Hélène in Les Vêpres siciliennes, Mathilde in Guillaume Tell, Donna Elvira and Elettra. The unusual, dark, covered colour of her voice is immediately attractive. But there’s a sense of reserve around her presence, both physical and musical, that detracts.

So it is in the crucible of Salome. Byström can sing all the important notes and has effective ways of rasping out the others, and this is not something to be sniffed at. More than that, her voice never sounds strained or pushed, naturally blossoming even in the work’s final stretches. I would bet there is no one else in the world who can achieve that feat and who is also as svelte as Byström; her tininess and glacial classical beauty surely make her the casting director’s dream Salome.

But despite giving so much Byström never seems to commit entirely to this or any other role. Of course, I get that any singer has to keep some part of themselves intact to monitor the practicalities of the art form; and maybe it’s just that other singers are better at hiding this than Byström. She seems, though, even to have a kind of anger at having to perform, like it should instead be enough for her to sing without anyone hearing. That sense is ever-present but comes through most sharply in the dance – Byström looks about as uncomfortable and awkward as I do in a nightclub – and the final scene, where Byström’s chaste kisses of the ghastly head fall well short of text and music.

There’s no such reserve in the rest of the ensemble, who are near uniformly excellent. Michael Volle is absolutely superb as Jokanaan, his voice marvellously loud and thrillingly pingy, his huge figure an electrifying presence. It’s wonderful to see John Daszak sing so brilliantly as Herod: his voice is perfectly placed in this venal German high-tenor type, and he like Volle seems to relish all the opportunities this production gives him for lusty grotesqueness. Conductor Henrik Nánási doesn’t imprint much personal stamp on the score but the orchestra nevertheless play magnificently.

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