It is five years since Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic brought Peter Grimes to the Edinburgh International Festival, memories of that event still vivid. Anticipation was high for this concert performance of Salome featuring Swedish soprano Malin Byström who has recently been making the title role her own. A strong international cast joined Bergen’s generous orchestral forces in a very busy Usher Hall.

Malin Byström
© Andrew Penny

Taking Salome into the concert hall is not without its risks as the dramatic work calls out for staging and props, yet here we were given a pure concert performance without even semi-staged direction, the singers working hard to bring their characters to life. Thrillingly, the crucible of the bowl-shaped Usher Hall only seemed to magnify the tension with Gardner keeping all his forces on a well-balanced knife edge in a superbly crafted performance, Oscar Wilde’s vibrant libretto completing the heady chemistry. We were left to imagine the gristly head of Jochanaan on a silver platter and Salome’s Dance of Seven Veils, but with the singers off copy and Richard Strauss’ soaring music, the audience was free to draw its own individual disturbing pictures.

With its heady mix of erotic infatuation, death and the strong biblical narrative at its core, Salome intrigues and appals us. All the singers completely inhabited their roles. Bror Magnus Tødens' Narraboth, obsessed with Salome, was sung with a plangent, urgent intensity to steer her away from the declaiming prisoner. Johan Reuter was a strong, dignified Jochanaan, his authoritative bass-baritone a welcome anchor to the unfolding drama. His stentorian prophecies intrigued the moody Salome and sparked off an entertaining theological disagreement about the prophet Elias between five Jews, a welcome moment of levity. The relationships between mother, daughter and stepfather were powerfully drawn, Katarina Dalayman’s warmly sung Herodias siding with Salome and protecting her from the increasingly deranged Herod, Gerhard Siegel in a committed performance, varying his timbre according to his many crazy moods.

Malin Byström and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
© Andrew Penny

Byström’s colossal performance as the insatiable anti-heroine was haunting, her rich warm soprano embracing her character but with a girlish litheness. Hers was the only singer with a costume, initially a white skirt and bodice, playfully knocking back Narraboth’s ardent suggestions and his warnings as she becomes infatuated with Jochanaan. The prophet’s rejection of Salome and, more violently, her mother led to Byström becoming the petulant princess, her elfin presence giving a false gloss to a truly chilling character. It is a huge role and Byström paced it perfectly in a breathtaking performance, drawing on every nuance and playing off her disjointed family to maximum destructive effect. She pulled a secret red ribbon from her bodice as she headed off to dance for her stepfather, returning in a full scarlet skirt to demand her terrible price. The shocking final moments of her kissing the dead head’s lips and tasting the bitterness of the blood were visceral with forbidden relish, the princess giving in to her animal instincts. It was all too much for Herod who could stand it no more and ordered his soldiers crush her to death with their shields.

Salome curtain call
© Andrew Penny

Gardner drew a powerhouse of a performance from his players, working hard to generally keep them from overwhelming the singers but, like a coiled spring, thrillingly letting them go in the interludes. He allowed lyrical beauty to emerge throughout, but the Seven Veils was an electrifying musical journey in itself. There was tremendous brass and woodwind playing and some lovely husky low bassoon moments, but the excitement came from the intensely romantic, sweeping music, Gardner building the tension to red-hot levels in a performance to remember.