Richard Strauss: Salome (1905)

Opera in one act. Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes.

The shorter, if more melodic, older sister of Elektra is based on a German translations of an originally French play written by Oscar Wilde, and is for the most part just as much a soprano marathon as the later opera.

Alice Guszalewicz als Salome. (Thought to be Oscar Wilde in costume for decades. 1907, Wikimedia.

I have heard this opera around four times in the last month, really I have been listening to almost nothing other than Strauss lately, and not just opera.

SETTING: The Terrace of the Palace of Herod, King of Judea, on a full moon night around the year 30 C.E. when a banquet is being held. John the Baptist (baritone) has been imprisoned by King Herod (tenor) in a cistern after insulting his new wife (and former sister-in-law) Herodias (mezzo-soprano) too many times. Enter Salome (soprano) daughter of Herodias (and thus both stepdaughter and niece of Herod) who is super horny all the time and lusts after the Baptist, although he rejects her advances as wanton and curses her, telling her literally to find Jesus, after she begs him to let her kiss him on the lips. Herod, meanwhile, has started to lust after Salome (and he isn’t alone in this as the palace captain of the guard, a Syrian named Narraboth (tenor) is also smitten with her), and requests that she dance for him. She is about to listen to her mother, and refuse, until he promises her anything she wants. She dances. She demands the head of the Baptist on a silver charger. Eventually, she gets her kiss.

LOOK OUT FOR:

0, 3: Wie schon ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!/Nach mir wird Einer kommen With a flourish of the clarinet, we are immediately transported to a humid Middle Eastern night on the Dead Sea as Narraboth declares how beautiful Salome is, where the only conflicts are either religious, sexual, or a combination of both (and how both connect to death). Here, the opera starts off with two simultaneous conversations which contrast these two themes as the Page of Herodias (contralto) tries to dissuade Narraboth from his infatuation with Salome (comparing her to the barrenness of the moon and the grave) and two guards who complain about how the Jews bicker about the complexity of their religion (this will not change, and gets its own scene later in the opera). The first item of specific note is actually an acknowledgement of what is probably the weakest element in the score: the way Strauss depicts John the Baptist *. The music is sufficiently religious in tone and distinctive, but also slightly mocking, and it is when Strauss attempts to address the veiled references to Jesus in the libretto that he comes off as forced and even patronizing. However, as a conversation between the guards and a Cappadocian continues in the background, there is a theme in the horns representing John which gets taken up by the strings and pushed around rather a lot (it will especially feature in the intermezzo as John is taken back and Herod comes on). Meanwhile, Narraboth is becoming more obsessed with Salome as themes from the first few seconds of the score are brought back in a more deranged way before Salome comes on.

5: Ich will nicht bleiben Salome comes on and her motto (a dancing descending high pitched theme using celestra, harp, violins *) is contracted with the rather dourer (even threatening) music coming from John in the cistern. Salome knows of John, and what he says about her mother (in spite of what the guards say) and is eager to see him in the flesh (literally and figuratively). A note about the role of Salome (and its vocal writing) is how low it is for a soprano. The highest note is a high B, its lowest a low G-flat below middle C (probably the lowest note ever written for a soprano role). However, the role is very obviously designed for a strong, high dramatic soprano, and the low G-flat is also covered by the French Horns in both instances due to the fact that for a soprano, this note has to be growled and has no musical value. She makes a remark about how the moon is bright yet cold, like a chaste virgin. The guards, meanwhile, do not want to fulfill the request of the Princess to see John, so she starts to work her wiles on Narraboth (who eventually collapses like jello because, as far as she is concerned, he has zero spine). However, even this takes three attempts.

14: The orchestral intermezzo which occurs as John is brought up from the cistern ** is a gorgeous orchestral passage which contrasts the two main themes of the score and libretto (the religious piety of John and the latent sexual awakening of Salome). The highlights of the first part of their interview include the higher sections for John, a radiant pianissimo high note for Salome as she compares him to the moon, and the constant tenor interjections from Narraboth (who is horrified as Salome attempts to rape John, but not because of what she is doing, but because John keeps resisting her and she refuses to turn her attention away from him). John tells Salome that her mother is basically Satan incarnate, which she hardly objects to. Narraboth continues to make protestations.

24: Jochanann, ich bin verliebt Salome strikes musical gold *** as she declares her love for John by means of a three part aria (her first of two, which are contrasted between her failed attempt with the living prophet and the consummative kiss she gives to his decapitated head at the end of the opera) , saying that his body, then his black hair, then his lips, are what she desires most. This terrifies Narraboth and disgusts John, which in turn makes Narraboth even more irate. Occasionally she falls into waltz time, but this only makes John at best pity if not hate her, calling her the daughter of Babylon, Sodom etc. Narraboth has had enough of this and stabs himself to death (this parallels the death of Salome by the other guards at the end of the opera). Strauss depicts how completely oblivious to everything Salome is by writing the suicide in orchestrally as a descending scale, breaking up a line for Salome by four bars, who expresses the name of John at either end.

33, 36: Tochter der Unzucht John tells Salome to find Jesus * (rather literally, although he is never mentioned by name). Instead of working, Salome has become obsessed with his lips and John curses her very dramatically before being taken back down the cistern. Strauss now produces an intermezzo * which is essentially an orchestral battle between John and Salome and their representative musical themes. Salome is left devastated and alone on stage for a time as derangement and sexual obsession consume her (depicted by the orchestra).

40: Wo ist Salome? Herod comes on looking for Salome, opening the second half of the opera just as Narraboth had done with a tenor line combining references both to Salome and her status as a princess. Although no one else seems to make reference to the fact that Herod and Narraboth (both tenors) are actually symbols of each other (equally obsessed with Salome and equating through action that lust ultimately with death) with Herod representing a continuation of the dead Narraboth (who has the first line in the opera, Herod the last line), the King literally falls into the blood of Narraboth. Getting up, Herod does express shock that Narraboth has killed himself, at first believing that the captain had been set upon, then remarking on how handsome the Syrian was and how they both share a similar sexual attraction to Salome. With that, he briskly orderly that the body be taken out, and feels a freezing wind (a soul?) which NO ONE ELSE feels (could this be soul transmigration?). In any case Strauss has the wind in his orchestra. I may be over thinking this, back to the opera!

44: Salome, komm trink Wein! Herod talks to Salome as if he were her lover ** asking her to drink wine with him, to eat fruit because he loves to see the imprint of her teeth in food, to sit on the throne of her mother even! Salome refuses all three offers. John can be heard in the cistern, Herodias wants him dead. Five Jews (four tenors and a bass) get into an argument about whether or not John is actually Elijah leading to a furious ensemble which tortures Herodias. Two Nazarenes (a tenor and a bass) break it up by reenforcing the argument that John is proposing about Jesus. This is all basically filler (and mildly pandering to Christianity), as it allows John to haunt the stage while not being on it (in the cistern).

55: Tanz fur mich Salome! Herod introduces the idea of having Salome dance for him with a sexual ardor close to the obsessiveness with which she has been pursuing the Baptist **. At first she is willing to accept the protests of her mother not to dance, but as she hears John just as Herod offers her ANYTHING up to half of his kingdom, she is intrigued. Salome gets ready, John predicts death and destruction from the cistern.

59: The Dance of the Seven Veils, a ten minute long orchestral intermezzo * which starts off Middle Eastern and rapidly becomes more and more Viennese. Strauss recycles themes from earlier in the score and applies percussion effects which last the whole time. There is a way to look upon the dance as an economic transaction: Salome dances for Herod to get what she wants: to kiss the lips of John the Baptist, dead or alive!

68: Herrlich! Wundervoll! Herod is beside himself with excitement at the end of the dance and awaits what she requests **, he even relishes that she prefaces her request with it being placed on a silver charger: the head of John! Herod is horrified (as is the brass section). He offers half his kingdom, all of his peacocks. Herodias is thrilled because she knows that Herod has to have John killed and has no choice. Salome keeps pressing her demand for the head of John, Herod keeps trying to deflect (even accusing Herodias of giving her the idea to kill John and that she doesn’t really want the head at all). Herod flutters about trying to escape the inevitable (the orchestra depicts this well).

78: Man soll ihr geben Herod gives in * and orders the execution. This is followed by about four minutes of waiting in which the strings pull off a bizarre plucking effect as Salome awaits the head of John. Crash, silence, the head arrives!

82, 97: Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht!/Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund gekusst! The remainder of the opera consists of a nearly twenty minute long aria for Salome as she relishes the sight of the severed head of John the Baptist in her arms and then, finally, kisses his cold dead lips, violating him in death when she had no power in life. The highlights are the very beginning *** when she explodes with sexual thrill. She has four occurrences of what can only be termed musical orgasms (the first and four more satisfying than the second and third, this being when the second low G-flat occurs, again covered by the orchestra). Herod is disgusted with her, and tells Herodias as much. The moon goes dark. The major mottos of the opera return for one last musical climax *** as Salome kisses the mouth of John the Baptist one last time (and in some productions dies in an orgasmic sex-death). Herod can take no more of this, but instead of committing suicide, orders his soldiers to crush her under their shields, addressing her not as a princess, as before, but with the now derogatory term weib. She dies violently as her theme is once more played in an equally violating way by the orchestra. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

What can I say? Salome is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and one of the most ugly operas ever written. Strauss is so effective with his lusty and lush orchestration that it almost makes up for how fast paced the score is. Themes bop in and out very quickly, some return frequently, others less so. No theme really holds out for very long, and this can be disconcerting to some people as it starts to border dangerously into Falstaff territory. Vocally, Salome, Herod, and to a lesser extent John are the most effective of the characters: Herodias is more of a character part, Narrabath as well, although the former more so for an older actress, the latter for a younger actor. The page is a good contralto cameo. The ugly would be the macabre obsession with sex and death which dominates the libretto and score (the libretto being Oscar Wilde, not Strauss). Strauss pulls this off amazingly well with his orchestra and with the shockingly written soprano role (the only one in the score, unusual for Strauss). Apart from Salome, the opera is mostly devoid of female voice (there are only three, one playing a male) and male voices dominate the entire score when the soprano is not taking charge. The weakest link is John, not so much as a character (which works) but of how Strauss attempts to convince us of religiosity, where he mostly fails by giving us themes which better match a saccharine Christian movie with only one theme for John really waging war with the forces of Salome and her sexual wantonness, and then, only in the orchestra.

I think the only thing I can write on this opera which might possibly be original would be to comment on how Strauss uses the tenor voices in the opera: Narraboth opens the opera with his passionate comment on the beauty of Salome, Herod closes the opera with the order to have her killed. By the time Herod appears Narraboth is dead, having committed suicide over Salome, and slips on the blood of a man who was a potential rival for his own niece, and then comments on how handsome he was while alive. He then feels a freezing wind which no one else feels (a ghost possibly?) after ordering that the body of Narraboth be taken away. Herod kills for Salome (having John beheaded) as a result of the closest thing to consumption that occurs in their relationship (when she exposes her entire body to him at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils), and then has her killed after she comes closest to consummating her lust for John the Baptist, but survives the action. In between is the explosive (and somewhat annoying) confrontation of the five Jews (four of whom are tenors) which is probably the closest (if somewhat accurate) reference in a Strauss opera to something bordering on anti-Semitism, or at least a Jewish stereotype. Ironically, Oscar Wilde, in his depiction of the Jews, is accurate regarding the constant arguing over theological matters which dominate Judaism to this day. Two thousand years ago it would have been Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Christians, today it is Orthodox, Conservative/Masorti, Reform, Reconstructionists and, well, Christians, (although the latter tends today to bicker only amongst themselves).

Nevertheless, an alpha. It can be no less.

SOURCES:

Forman, Sir Denis. A Night at the Opera. Random House: New York, 1994. Salome p.655-662.

Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Strauss: A Critical Guide. Grange Books: London, 1995. Ch. 3 Salome p.37-54.

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