"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 20, 2016

Best 20th Century Operas (2): Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)

Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)
Alex Ross begins his survey of twentieth century classical music, The Rest is Noise, with the shock Richard Strauss' Salome caused with its radical harmonies and its violent story of deviant Freudian sexuality - this opera certainly meant the advent of a new age, just like Pelléas et Mélisande had done in France a few years before. The sensationally innovatory score sent ripples all over Europe. It also rekindled interest in Oscar Wilde, on whose French play the opera was based.

[Salome's Dance by Gustave Moreau]

The Salome legend itself originates in the gospels of Saint Mathew and Saint Mark. Salome is the daughter of Herodias, who has left her first husband and father of Salome to marry her husband's brother, Herod King of Judea, because he is richer and more powerful. This marriage was considered as unlawful by contemporaries, as Herodias' first husband was still alive; and as she had married her brother-in-law, it was also condemned as incestuous. One man who publicly criticized her was John the Baptist, an ascetic and fierce moralist. He had been arrested and jailed by Herod, but the king was afraid to put him to death as demanded by his wife Herodias, because of John the Baptist's holiness and great popularity.

On Herod's birthday party, Salome is enticed to dance for her stepfather, after being told that she may ask whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. At the instigation of her mother, she then demands the head of John the Baptist as reward.

[Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head, 
watercolor by Gustave Moreau]

Since the Renaissance, the Salome legend has inspired numerous painters. An important example close to the time of Strauss is Gustave Moreau, whose painting of Salome's dance is also described in Huysman's decadent novel A Rebours (1884), where the erotic intent of Salome's dance is emphasized. Some years before that, Gustave Flaubert wrote a short story, "Herodias" (1877), the last of his Trois Contes; in this story Herodias uses her daughter as an instrument to obtain the head of John the Baptist and so take revenge on her critic. Salome herself is shown as a more or less innocent young girl, as she even forgets the name of the man whose head she has to request. Jules Massenet's rather tame 1881 opera Hérodiade was based on Flaubert's short story.

Oscar Wilde wrote his very different, heavily Symbolist play in 1892. He wrote it originally in French, as British law forbade the depiction of Biblical figures on stage; it premiered in Paris in 1896. A new element added by Wilde, was that the sixteen-year old Salome takes a perverse fancy to John the Baptist. She shamelessly eroticizes the body of the ascetic preacher and causes him to be executed when he spurns her affections. In the finale, Salome takes up John's severed head and kisses it - the peak of decadence and necrophilia. Another new motif was that Wilde has Herod - who is already tired of Herodias - lust after Salome, his young stepdaughter and niece. When she dances naked for him, he is willing to give her anything she desires.

[The Climax, Salome and the head of Jokanaan, 
by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893]

Richard Strauss, who after two failed operas in the early nineties, had mainly written large symphonic poems as Also sprach Zarathustra, was inspired by the German translation of Wilde's play by Hedwig Lachmann and decided to set it word for word, only doing some editing and cutting away superfluous passages (as Debussy had done three years previously in Pelléas et Mélisande). He had finally found the right material for a great opera.

In the first part of the resulting concise 100-minute opera, he concentrates on the confrontation between Salome and John the Baptist, called by his Hebrew name "Jokanaan" in the play and opera. Salome could be called "the symbol of unstable sexuality," and Jokanaan the "symbol of ascetic rectitude (but he was also a ridiculous figure in the eyes of the composer Strauss)," as Alex Ross says. Salome is a bored teenager, but she is also very beautiful - Herod is in love with her, as are several others in his court (in an earlier scene, one of the guards even commits suicide out of frustrated love). But, as Strauss insisted, she is also innocent. Salome hears Jokanaan's voice emanating from the cistern in which he has been imprisoned and she is bewitched by it. She has him brought up by the guards and immediately has a crush on him and tries to seduce him, but he shrinks away from her and even utters a curse.

In the second part we meet the tetrarch Herod, a man caught in his own base sensuality, a hypocrite and a hysteric. He persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, and so she does, to kitschy music. The dance is a striptease, she removes one after another of the seven veils that conceal her body until she stands naked before Herod. She now calls for the prophet's head. Herod tries to make her change her mind, but she refuses. The executioner descends into the cistern prison and returns with Jokanaan's head which he hands her on a silver platter. Salome explodes in necrophiliac bliss (this is after all a love story), dancing with the head and kissing it, while the orchestra blares forth with erotic love music. Herod is so horrified by the spectacle his own incestuous lust has engendered, that he calls on the guards to "Kill that woman!" With a shriek and howl, the curtain falls. The opera ends with eight bars of sheer noise.

[Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Titian]

The combination of the erotic and the murderous with a Biblical theme, shocked opera audiences from its first appearance, but although Salome was censured in many countries, it also took the world by storm - within two years after its first performance in Dresden in 1905, it was playing in 50 opera houses around the world. Not all performers were comfortable with the role of Salome: some refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils," thus creating a situation where a dancer had to act as "body double." And during the first performance in London, the head of John the Baptist, brought on a silver tray to Salome, was replaced by a (apparently more innocuous) bloody sword. But the twentieth century was underway, and modernity made this opera about extreme sexual obsession not only possible, but also a reflection of the age.  

Recording watched and listened to: Maria Ewing as Salome, Michael Devlin as Jokanaan, Kenneth Riegel as Herod, Gillian Knight as Herodias; with the ROH Covent Garden conducted by Edward Downes; and with Derek Bailey as stage director; on Kultur Video (DVD). 

A performance on DVD stands and falls with the singer playing Salome: she must be a dramatic soprano with a strong voice, but also convincingly look like a young woman. That is a difficult combination, but Maria Ewing perfectly fits the bill in this somewhat older recording. With her large luminous eyes, she is a perfect dramatic actress who aptly conveys Salome's journey from curiosity to infatuation and finally total insanity in her amorous pursuit of John the Baptist.