Perth Concert Hall

Keith Bruce, four stars

THE appearance on a Scottish concert stage of Sir Richard Armstrong, formerly of Scottish Opera, inevitably brought to mind that company’s hugely successful Ring cycle directed by Tim Albery. Richard Strauss’s powerful Salome, from Oscar Wilde’s drama via librettist Hedwig Lachmann, may be a terse hour and three quarters by comparison, but it is hardly less musically powerful and as demanding of the singers and players.

The difference here was that Armstrong and the orchestra were visible to all, not confined to the theatre pit. Opera North’s touring concert production of Strauss’s 1905 masterpiece may not have all the clever contemporary visuals of its own superb recent version of the Wagner, staged in full two years ago as conductor Richard Farnes’s farewell to the company, but it shares some of the same aesthetic in the stage lighting and costuming and performances of the cast.

With only a slither of the apron of the platform and four chairs with which to work, the fifteen singers omitted none of the drama of the action, and the proximity of words and music-making often produced moments of startling clarity. In suggesting that Salome’s dance of the seven veils was happening off-stage as a private experience for Herod, director PJ Harris paralleled it with the opening scene’s reportage of the king’s step-daughter and the incarcerated prophet Jokannen as rivals for the attention of the court.

The vocal performances of all the main characters were top class, but the domestic dynamic between Herodias (Katarina Karneus), Herod (Arnold Bezuyen) and Jennifer Holloway’s commanding Salome was the fearsome heart of the work. That and the superb playing of the orchestra, where it was a real please to be able to watch as well as hear the growl of the contra-bassoon and the glissando fingering on the lower strings.

As Herod’s final murderous command hung in the air and the orchestra was bathed in blood-red light, this exclusive Scottish performance was a real coup for the Perth hall.