Program Notes: Opera Finale: Strauss’ Salome

Program Notes: Opera Finale: Strauss’ Salome

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Full program notes:

Richard Strauss
Born: June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Salome, Opus 54

Shocking, bestial, pestiferous, perverse, devastating, decadent and depraved are just a few of the terms that have been hurled at Strauss’ opera Salome. Without question, it is one of the boldest, most original and most provocative scores ever written. The premiere of this one-act opera in Dresden on December 9, 1905, set off waves of revulsion and charges of scandal such as the operatic world had seldom, if ever, seen.

Critics competed for the most vivid and graphic images to make their points. In Boston, Louis Elson admonished readers of the Daily Advertiser that the libretto “is a compound of lust, stifling perfumes and blood, and cannot be read by any woman or fully understood by anyone but a physician.” In London, the 1908 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claimed that “on the average hearer it produces a sense of nausea.” Not to be outdone, the influential New York critic Henry Krehbiel called the opera a “moral stench.”

scandalous and sensational
Why all the fuss? Well, to name a few still-scandalous plot points: Salome’s stepfather Herod is in lust with her. Herod and his second wife Herodias are constantly at each other’s throats, squabbling about everything and agreeing on nothing. (Actually, they’re living in sin, as Herod’s first marriage was never annulled.) A servant commits suicide in front of the whole court and hardly anyone notices except a man who was in love with him. And then there is Salome herself—physically attracted to a holy man whose charms she enumerates in explicit detail; prepared to dance nude to get what she wants; and so perverted that she can blithely ask for a severed heard to be delivered to her, and “on a silver platter,” no less. What she does with this head is beyond what most people can stomach. Even Herod is so repulsed that he orders his own stepdaughter murdered.

Not exactly light summer fare! Nor is it for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Nevertheless, our fascination with the lurid, the morbid, the sensational and the perverse keeps Salome at the top of the operatic hit list. Tonight’s performance, however, marks the first time it has been presented as the Sommerfest opera finale.

a “sung play,” brilliantly orchestrated
For his libretto, Strauss used a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s original French-language play, published in 1892. The subject is treated briefly in the gospels according to Mark and Matthew. Before Strauss got to it, Salome’s story had been treated elsewhere in words (including Flaubert’s short story that Massenet turned into the opera Hérodiade), in drawings (Dürer, Mucha, Picasso and Beardsley), and on canvas (Rubens, Leonardo, Donatello, Titian, Moreau and Klimt). Strauss reduced Wilde’s text by about a third, but otherwise used it virtually word for word. There are no arias, duets, or choral numbers. Nearly everything is monologue or dialogue—opera as sung play.

By the time Strauss completed Salome in 1905, he had already achieved renown on two continents as the composer of a series of extraordinary tone poems that explored orchestral possibilities to their limits. He had set the musical world on its ear through the marvelous colors and pictorial effects he incorporated into symphonic poems like Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Don Quixote, Also sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben. He had brought the orchestra to its highest level of development, demanded unprecedented technical facility from every player, and expanded the range of nearly every instrument. If Berlioz could be said to have used the orchestra as a collective soloist, then Strauss made everyone a virtuoso. In Salome, he carried these elements farther than ever before. So essential is the orchestra in Salome that one cannot ever think of it as “accompanying” the singers.

To accomplish this purpose, Strauss employed an oversized orchestra, not just to produce overwhelming tidal waves of sound, but to have at his disposal an enormous range of colors. The tally of musicians required for Salome, while not the very largest Strauss ever used in an opera (that honor goes to Elektra), is certainly as variegated as in any other. A glance at the score reveals such rarely encountered instruments as the heckelphone (bass oboe), celesta, harmonium and organ.

Strauss’ complete mastery of the orchestral palette allowed him to create moods with uncanny accuracy. The slinky, feline nature of the title character is captured in an instant by the clarinet’s opening notes, which constitute one of the most important motifs in the opera. It is played by nearly every instrument of the orchestra at one point or another, including even by the contrabassoon, where, needless to say, it hardly sounds slinky or seductive. The sensuous, sultry warmth of the Middle Eastern night pervades much of the score, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the central episode of Salome’s dance. Alternating with this rich, heavy, languorous music are episodes of nervous excitability in which woodwinds skitter about with the agility of monkeys, horns and trumpets need the facility of string instruments, and the strings practically require whole sections of Heifetzes to play accurately what Strauss wrote for them. Even the timpanist is asked to execute acrobatic feats of derring-do.

Strauss once boasted that he could describe virtually anything in music, even a knife and fork, if need be. He was never challenged on the knife and fork, but in Salome we find dozens of examples of his gift for converting almost anything into orchestral tone. When Herodias taunts Herod about his lowly ancestry (the son of a camel driver), woodwinds erupt with several shrill, nasal imitations of a camel’s cry. Herod in turn accuses his wife of screeching like a bird of prey, to appropriate sounds from five clarinets and a trumpet. When Herod imagines an icy wind blowing through the palace, Strauss conjures up a highly realistic effect by having the strings and flutes race up and down chromatic scales; one not only hears, but feels the blast of chill air and pervasive sense of fear. The composer’s father made the oft-quoted remark that there is so much nervousness in the score that “it is exactly as if one had one’s pants full of maybugs.”

can opera still shock?
Despite the opera’s controversial subject matter and the howls of critics, the 1905 premiere of Salome in Dresden was a great success, with 38 curtain calls and the event being declared the most exciting premiere since that of Verdi’s Falstaff in 1894. Within two years, 50 cities in Germany had mounted productions of Strauss’ Salome, and by 1911 nearly every country in Europe had done so. In the U.S., there was a single performance at the Metropolitan Opera in January of 1907, and then the opera was banned and not readmitted there until 1933.

With more than a century of wars, terrorism, vice, corruption, scandal, violence and decline in moral standards since the premiere of Salome, the ability of the opera to create shock and awe is perhaps not what it used to be. But the thrills of a performance remain as potent as ever, generated by vivid character portrayal, manic temperament, a fiendishly difficult title role, and above all the coruscating orchestration that leaps from every page of the score.

SYNOPSIS

The opera’s setting is the terrace just outside the palace of Herod in Judea. Herod, often referred to as the Tetrarch (ruler of the fourth part of a region in the ancient Roman Empire), is married to his brother’s widow Herodias, mother of the beautiful but spoiled teenage Salome. Imprisoned in an underground cistern is the prophet John the Baptist (Jokanaan in German), who has denounced Herodias for her perfidious act of having her former husband murdered, and preaches the coming of Christ. Herod is afraid of him, Herodias despises him, and Salome falls in lust with him. Herod too is in lust, with his step-daughter Salome. An unsavory scene all around!

The action begins with no overture. Narraboth, captain of the guard, comments on the beauty of Princess Salome, who is still inside the palace. To no avail, a page warns Narraboth of the danger in admiring Salome. John the Baptist, down in the cistern, sings the first of his Scriptural prophecies, which make no sense to anyone. Salome comes out onto the terrace, annoyed with the lecherous glances she keeps getting from Herod. Again John speaks; Salome is instantly attracted by his voice and intrigued by his message. She demands that Narraboth bring him up for her to see. Narraboth protests that Herod has forbidden him to do this, but playing the role of a seductress, she soon persuades Narraboth to do her bidding. Step by step, she tries to get John to reciprocate the sexual desire she feels for him, but each time he spurns her. Exasperated, he curses her and returns to the cistern. While John descends, and while Salome steams and fumes, the orchestra pours forth a torrent of sound in a ferocious interlude that depicts the emotional turmoil in the air.

Accompanied by members of the court, Herod and Herodias enter. We quickly learn what a degenerate, repellent couple they are. Herod slips in the blood of Narraboth’s dead body (he has killed himself in disgust over Salome’s lascivious behavior toward John the Baptist), but he hardly cares. He is more concerned with the superstitious nature of the event than with human feelings. Herod asks Salome to bite into a piece of fruit, so that he might put his own lips where hers have been. He tries to cajole her into drinking wine with him. Herodias argues with virtually everything Herod says and does, not neglecting to taunt him with the fact that she comes from royalty while he is the son of a mere camel driver. The superstitious, neurotic Herod imagines strange winds in the air. Again we hear the voice of John the Baptist. A quintet of Jews argues over who the prophet really is. Suddenly Herod asks Salome to dance for him. At first she refuses, supported by her mother. Finally Salome consents, but only if Herod swears to give her anything she wants. Anything. Herod readily agrees.

With that, Salome launches into the famous Dance of the Seven Veils. One by one Salome sheds her veils, until by the end she is stark naked, much to Herod’s delight.

And now it is time for her reward. Herod hasn’t the faintest idea of what’s coming. Salome, the spoiled brat, having been rejected by John the Baptist and not used to hearing the word “no,” sweetly, almost childishly, asks for the head of the prophet, to be delivered to her on a silver platter. Herod is naturally horrified; equally naturally, Herodias is delighted. The next 15 minutes depict Herod’s road to insanity as he attempts with increasing desperation to find something, anything, that Salome will accept instead. After the seventh time she demands “Gib mir den Kopf des Jokanaan,” Herod collapses in despair and submits to the inevitable.

While Herod slips into semi-consciousness, Herodias removes the ring of execution from his finger and hands it to the executioner. Herod revives, now in a state of total panic. Salome, leaning over the cistern in a state of sexual excitement and total derangement, listens for the head to fall. When it does, she whoops with glee. As the executioner hands her the prize, still dripping blood, she exults that now, finally, she can kiss in death the mouth of the man who spurned her in life. The ghastly effect created by the huge orchestra at the beginning of the Final Scene perfectly captures the air of monstrous depravity and pathologically warped minds that inhabit the stage. Virtually all of the remainder of the opera belongs to Salome as she slobbers over the head, examining every feature in minute detail. Near the end, the moon emerges from behind a dark cloud, illuminating the silver platter with the bloody head, while one by one the instruments of the orchestra begin trilling until the listener is engulfed in a display of dazzling brilliance. Now even Herod is revolted by what he has just witnessed, and orders his solders to batter her to death. Howls, screams of terror, four awful crunches, and the gruesome tale is over.

Program note and synopsis by Robert Markow.

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