Music with Ease > 20th Century Opera > Salome - Richard Strauss
An Opera by Richard Strauss
Opera in one act by Richard Strauss; words after Oscar Wildes poem of the same title, translated into German by Hedwig Lachmann. Produced at the Court Opera, Dresden, December 9, 1905. Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1907, with Olive Fremstad; Manhattan Opera House, New York, with Mary Garden.
HEROD ANTIPAS, Tetrarch of Judea
HERODIAS, wife of Herod
SALOME, daughter of Herodias
JOKANAAN (John the Baptist)
NARRABOTH, a young Syrian, Captain of the Guard
A young Roman, the executioner, five Jews, two Nazarenes, two soldiers, a Cappadocian and a slave.
Time: About 30 A.D.
Place: The great terrace in the palace of Herod at Tiberias, Galilee, the capital of his kingdom.
On the great terrace of Herods palace, off the banquet hall, is his body-guard. The ardent looks of the young captain, Narraboth, a Syrian, are directed toward the banquet hall where Salome is seated. In vain the Page, who is aware of the neurotic taint in the woman, warns him. The young captain is consumed with ardent desires.
The night is sultry. The soldiers talk is interrupted by the sounds from the hall. Suddenly there is heard a loud and deep voice, as from a tomb. Dread seizes even upon the rough soldiers. He who calls is a madman according to some, a prophet according to others, in either case, a man of indomitable courage who with terrifying directness of speech brings the ruling powers face to face with their sins and bids them repent. This is Jokanaan. His voice sounds so reverberant because it issues from the gloomy cistern in which he is held a captive.
Suddenly Salome, in great commotion, steps out on the terrace. The greedy looks with which the Herod, her step-father, has regarded her, as well as the talk and noisy disputes of the gluttons and degenerates within have driven her out.
In her stirs the sinful blood of her mother, who, in order that she might marry Herod, slew her husband. Depraved surroundings, a court at which the satiating of all desires is the main theme of the day, have poisoned her thoughts. She seeks new pleasures, as yet untasted enjoyments. Now, as she hears the voice of the Prophet, there arises in her the lust to see this man, whom she has heard her mother curse, because he has stigmatized her shame, and whom she knows the Tetrarch fears, although a captive. What she desires is strictly forbidden, but Narraboth cannot resist her blandishments. The strange, gloomy figure of the Jokanaan, fantastically noble in the rags of his captivity, stirs Salomes morbid desires. Her abandoned arts are brought into full play in her efforts to tempt him, but with the sole result that he bids her do penance. This but adds fuel to the flame. When Narraboth, in despair over her actions, kills himself on his own sword, she does not so much as notice it. Appalled by the wickedness of the young woman, the Prophet warns her to seek for the only one in whom she can find redemption, the Man of Galilee. But realizing that his words fall on deaf ears, he curses her, and retreats into his cistern.
Herod, Herodias, and their suite come out on the terrace. Herod is suffering under the weight of his crimes, but the infamous Herodias is as cold as a serpent. Herods sinful desire for his step-daughter is the only thing that can stir his blood. But Salome is weary and indifferent; Herodias full of bitter scorn for him and for her daughter. Against the Prophet, whose voice terrifies the abandoned gatherings at table, her hatred is fierce. But Herod stands in mysterious awe of the Prophet. It is almost because of his dread of the future, which Jokanaan proclaims so terribly, that Herod asks as a diversion for Salomes dance in order that life may flow warn again in his chilled veins. Salome demurs, until he swears that he will grant any request she may make of him. She then executes the "Dance of the Seven Veils," casting one veil after another from her. Herod asks what her reward shall be. In part prompted by Herodias, but also by her own mad desire to have vengeance for her rejected passion, she demands the head of the Prophet. Herod offers her everything else he can name that is most precious, but Salome refuses to release him from his promise. The executioner descends into the cistern. Jokanaan is slain and his severed head presented to Salome upon a silver charger. Alive he refused her his lips. Now, in a frenzy of lust, she presses hers upon them. Even Herod shudders, and turns from her revolted. "Kill that woman!" he commands his guards, who crush her under their shields.
Regarding the score of "Salome," Strauss himself remarked that he had paid no consideration whatever to the singers. There is a passage for quarrelling Jews that is amusing; and, for a brief spell, in the passage in which Salome gives vent to her lust for Jokanaan, the music is molten fire. But considered as a whole, the singers are like actors, who intone instead of speaking. Whatever the drama suggests, whatever is said or done upon the stage -- a word, a look, a gesture -- is minutely and realistically set forth in the orchestra, which should consist of a hundred and twelve pieces. The real musical climax is "The Dance of the Seven Veils," a superb orchestral composition.
Strauss calls the work a drama. As many as forty motifs have been enumerated in it. But they lack the compact, pregnant qualities of the motifs in the Wagner music dramas which are so individual, so melodically eloquent that their significance is readily recognized not only when they are first heard, but also when they recur. Nevertheless, the "Salome" of Richard Strauss is an effective work -- so effective in the setting forth of its offensive theme that it was banished from the Metropolitan Opera House, although Olive Fremstad lavished her art upon the title rôle; nor have the personal fascination and histrionic gifts of Mary Garden been able to keep it alive.
At the Metropolitan Opera House, then under the direction of Heinrich Conried, it was heard at a full-dress rehearsal, which I attended, and at one performance. It was then withdrawn, practically on command of the board of directors of the opera company, although the initial impulse is said to have come from a woman who sensed the brutality of the work under its mark of "culture."