Great moments in opera: Salome

May 20, 2014

Richard Strauss’ Salome is one of those pieces whose debut was accompanied by so much controversy and vitriol — it was banned in numerous jurisdictions — that its political aspects tend to overshadow its musical aspects. The opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s play, which in turn is based (of course) on the Biblical account of Salome and St. John the Baptist.

The most famously controversial aspect of the work is the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Salome’s seductive dance before Herod. It was taken as lewd by many in the original audience, and over the intervening century there have been a not-insignificant number of singers who have refused the part on those grounds. To my mind, the more objectionable, because so gruesome, aspect of the opera is Salome’s long monologue with the severed head of St. John, which ends with a sickening kiss. Don’t plan to go for a late night meal after this opera.

Having said that, the subversive elements of the work don’t seem to me to dominate it. Instead, I was surprised at just how, in a sense, conservative the overall arc of the drama is. John the Baptist, in particular, is portrayed as a man of integrity and spiritual authority, towering over (even as he is literally sunk beneath, in a well) the weakly tyrannical figure of Herod and his posturing court. Salome’s numerous attempts to seduce him are met with thunderous rejections, and he dies bravely. There is no question but that Herod, Herodias, Salome, and everyone around them are wicked, and even if the opera wallows too luxuriously in that wickedness, there is at least never any attempt to call evil good.

The fame of Salome may rest principally on its sensational story elements, but the music does much to justify its place in the canon of twentieth-century opera. There was a reason why, one famous night in 1906, Schoenberg, Mahler, Puccini, and other luminaries attended a performance. The music is darkly lovely, coruscating at times, intensely dramatic, making effective and liberal use of dissonance without lapsing into formlessness. It is reasonable, I think, to pair it with Elektra, which followed a few years later; the two works occupy a similarly provocative aesthetic space (which Strauss was later to abandon for more genteel entertainments). It is true that there is little to nothing in the score that qualifies as tuneful or particularly memorable, but the opera was written not to be whistled in the street, but to produce an intense dramatic effect, and in this it largely succeeds, despite the evident thinness of the plot.

Alas, this same deficit of tunefulness impairs my ability to excerpt “great moments”. I shy away from the “Dance of the Seven Veils” because I’ve no wish to advertise lewdness, and that last great monologue by Salome, fine as it is, lasts over 20 minutes, which is surely enough to try the patience of even the most indefatigable and loyal reader.

But here is a happy solution to the problem of how to present the “Dance of the Seven Veils”; we can look at the score:

What does that do for you? I admit it doesn’t do much for me, but then the same could be said for much of Strauss’ strictly orchestral music.

Here is a clip of the final minutes of the opera, showing roughly the last third of Salome’s gory conversation with St. John’s head. It is sung by the wonderful Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas in a (relatively) famous film version of the opera made in the 1970s. She’s lip-syncing, but the voice to which she’s lip-syncing is her own. English subtitles. This gives a reasonably good idea of the “feel” of the opera, and is worth watching through if you’re interested.

To pluck any other “great moments” would be, in this case, to multiply cases to no purpose, for one moment is more or less as good as another. As I said, this opera is not a tunesmith’s workshop. But here is a nice little “Intro to Salome” video produced by Carnegie Hall. I wonder if it contradicts anything I said above?

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