Dance of death

Opera - Peter Conrad loses his head to the ignited, audacious Karita Mattila in Salome

Great performances show us life intensified and terrifyingly accelerated. When Karita Mattila sings Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs", the earth's cycle of seasons revolves through a year in just 20 minutes, taking the soprano from springtime rejuvenation to a cold wintry premonition of death; when she plays the feverishly inquisitive, erotically unbridled heroine of his opera Salome - as she has just done for the first time at the Opera Bastille in Paris - she takes us, in 100 exhausting minutes, from childish curiosity through adult gratification to morbid, moribund regret.

Mattila' s Salome is at first a self-pleasuring nymphet, like Tennessee Williams's Baby Doll curled in her narcissistic crib. She enters twisting strands of her golden hair and sucking her finger in a gesture that is at once infantile and lewd. Eyeing the guardsman Narraboth, she advances on him with casual, skipping grace as if playing hopscotch, and toys with the skirt of his leather tunic. Her motives initially are harmless and mischievous. John the Baptist appeals to her because he slanders her mother, and she shivers with delicious dread when speculating about the black den in which he is imprisoned. After his cage is hauled out into full view, she crouches like a wary, timid animal watching a member of another species. While he fulminates, she clambers over the bars of his cell with simian suppleness, poking her bare legs through the slits. When he rejects her entreaties he destroys her amoral innocence, and forces her to become self-conscious. The change is a small death, a mortifying orgasm: she slumps to the floor, clinging to his cage and allowing herself to be dragged along as it pulled away. That glad, capering body has become a dead weight.

Mattila's voice, during her first musing soliloquy, is a silvery wisp, fragile and precious; it warms to a fierce golden heat when she begins to experience desire. She reserves her fullest volume for the high notes in which Salome demands satisfaction from obstructive or intimidated men, and the B-flats blaze like beacons. During the dance in which she persuades Herod to behead the Baptist, the singing is done by Mattila's elastic, apparently double-jointed body. Swan-like flights are followed by slow pelvic convulsions; in a shuddering frenzy, she seems to have been electrocuted by her own sexual energy. Despite its carnal blatancy, this is a dance of death, addressed to the pallid moon that stalks her, and the veils that she successively discards are our civilised camouflage, the layers of evasion that conceal our most violent cravings.

In the final scene, which is Salome's necrophiliac "Liebestod", Mattila lectures the Baptist's head, berating it for being unable to see her beauty and reciprocate her love. Then, with a fierce hiss that sounds like the exhalation of her spirit, she kisses it. Her mouth is glued to its cold lips; when she pulls herself free, she is leaden-limbed, already a corpse. She sings her last lines with her head lolling upside down on the steps of Herod's terrace, addressing the empty, godless sky. The tone has no lustre now, and resounds as hollowly as an echo in a tomb. You cannot see a face, only a jungle of hair and a tangled shroud, because she has decomposed before our eyes. She greets Herod's executioners with one last unveiling, baring her breasts: death is the ultimate mystery, which she welcomes with open arms as the thudding, dissonant orchestra completes the ceremony.

James Conlon conducts brutally, with more power than delicacy. He has called the opera a musical equivalent to Gustav Klimt's paintings, but Lev Dodin's production seems to be paying funereal homage to Bocklin's painting Isle of the Dead: gloomy cyp-resses standing as sentinels in a dark crypt. Dodin rightly argues that Salome describes a war of faiths and of clashing civilisations, but in Paris this historical crisis matters less than the psychodrama enacted by Mattila. I don't think I have ever seen an operatic characterisation of such physical bravery combined with such fearless vocal bravura. Each of Salome's male antagonists puts up an admirable fight: William Burden captures the mellifluous infatuation of Narraboth, Falk Struckmann hectors savagely as the Baptist, and Chris Merritt manages, during Herod's gabbled nervous breakdown, to make clear that this benighted pagan king longs to believe in the promised redeemer - but each in turn melts like wax. Who can resist the ignited, audacious Mattila? She is welcome to my head on a silver salver any day; indeed, I think I lost it to her long ago.

Karita Mattila performs Strauss's "Four Last Songs" and Sibelius's "Hostkvall" with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (020 7638 5403) on 1 November