IN the ballet scene of Gounod’s most popular opera Mephistopheles conjures up visions of Phryne, Lais, Aspasia, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy to be-guile the jaded interest of Faust. The list reads almost like a catalogue of the operas of Massenet whose fine talent was largely given to the celebration of the famous courtesans of the ancient world. With the addition of a few more names from the roster of antiquity (Thaïs, Dalila, and Aphrodite), and some less ancient but no less immoral creatures of modern fancy, like Violetta, Manon Lescaut, Zaza, and Louise, we might make a pretty complete list of representatives of the female type in which modern dramatists and composers seem to think the interest of humanity centres.
When Massenet’s “Hérodiade” was announced as the first opera to be given at the Manhattan Opera House in New York for the season of 19091910 it looked to some observers as if the dominant note of the year was to be sounded by the Scarlet Woman ; but the representation brought a revelation and a surprise. The names of the principal characters were those which for a few years had been filling the lyric theatres of Germany with a moral stench ; but their bearers in Massenet’s opera did little or nothing that was especially shocking to good taste or proper morals. Herod was a love-sick man of lust, who gazed with longing eyes upon the physical charms of Salomé and pleaded for her smiles like any sentimental milksop ; but he did not offer her Capernaum for a dance. Salomé may have known how, but she did not dance for either half a kingdom or the whole of a man’s head. Instead, though there were intimations that her reputation was not all that a good maiden’s ought to be, she sang pious hosannahs and waved a palm branch conspicuously in honor of the prophet at whose head she had bowled herself in the desert, the public streets, and king’s palaces. At the end she killed herself when she found that the vengeful passion of Herodias and the jealous hatred of Herod had compassed the death of the saintly man whom she had loved. Herodias was a wicked woman, no doubt, for John the Baptist denounced her publicly as a Jezebel, but her jealousy of Salomé had reached a point beyond her control before she learned that her rival was her own daughter whom she had deserted for love of the Tetrarch. As for John the Baptist the camel’s hair with which he was clothed must have cost as pretty a penny as any of the modern kind, and if he wore a girdle of skins about his loins it was concealed under a really regal cloak. He was a voice ; but not one crying in the wilderness. He was in fact an operatic tenor comme il faut, who needed only to be shut up in a subterranean jail with the young woman who had pursued him up hill and down dale, in and out of season to make love to her in the most approved fashion of the Paris Grand Opéra.
What shall we think of the morals of this French opera, after we have seen and heard that compounded by the Englishman Oscar Wilde and the German Richard Strauss? No wonder that England’s Lord Chamberlain asked nothing more than an elimination of the Biblical names when he licensed a performance of “Hérodiade” at Covent Garden. There was no loss of dramatic qualitiy in calling Herod, Moriame, and Herodias, Hesotade, and changing the scene from Jerusalem to Azoum in Ethiopia; though it must have been a trifle diverting to hear fair-skinned Ethiopians singing Schma Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu in a temple which could only be that of Jerusalem. John the Baptist was only Jean in the original and needed not to be changed, and Salomé is not in the Bible, though Salome, a very different woman is a fact which the Lord Chamberlain seems to have overlooked when he changed the title of the opera from “Hérodiade” to “Salomé.”
Where does Salome come from, anyway? And where did she get her chameleonlike nature? Was she an innocent child, as Flaubert represents her, who could but lisp the name of the prophet when her mother told her to ask for his head? Had she taken dancing lessons from one of the women of Cadiz to learn to dance as she must have danced to excite such lust in Herod? Was she a monster, a worse than vampire as she is represented by Wilde and Strauss? Was she an “Israelitish grisette” as Pougin called the heroine of the opera which it took one Italian (Zanardini) and three Frenchmen (Milliet, Grémont, and Massenet) to concoct? No wonder that the brain of Saint-Saëns reeled when he went to hear “Hérodiade” at its first performance in Brussels and found that the woman whom he had looked upon as a type of lasciviousness and monstrous cruelty had become metamorphosed into a penitent Magdalen. Read the plot of the opera and wonder !
Salomé is a maiden in search of her mother whom John the Baptist finds in his wanderings and be-friends. She clings to him when he becomes a political as well as a religious power among the Jews, though he preaches unctuously to her touching the vanity of earthly love. Herodias demands his death of her husband for that he had publicly insulted her, but Herod schemes to use his influence over the Jews to further his plan to become a real monarch instead of a Roman Tetrarch. But when the pro-consul Vitellius wins the support of the people and Herod learns that the maiden who has spurned him is in love with the prophet, he decrees his decapitation. Salomé, baffled in her effort to save her lover, attempts to kill Herodias; but the wicked woman discloses herself as the maiden’s mother and Salomé turns the dagger against her own breast.
This is all of the story one needs to know. It is richly garnished with incident, made gorgeous with pageantry, and clothed with much charming music. Melodies which may be echoes of synagogal hymns of great antiquity resound in the walls of the temple at Jerusalem, in which respect the opera recalls Goldmark’s “Queen of Sheba.” Curved Roman trumpets mix their loud clangors with the instruments of the modern brass band and compel us to think of ” Aida.” There are dances of Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians, and if the movements of the women make us deplore the decay of the choreographic art, the music warms us almost as much as the Spanish measures in “Le Cid.” Eyes and ears are deluged with Oriental color until at the last there comes a longing for the graciously insinuating sentimentalities of which the earlier Massenet was a master. Two of the opera’s airs had long been familiar to the public from performance in the concert-room Salomé’s “Il est doux” and Herod’s ” Vision fugitive” and they stand out as the brightest jewels in the opera’s musical crown; but there is much else which woos the ear delightfully, for Massenet was ever a gracious if not a profound melodist and a master of construction and theatrical orchestration. When he strives for massive effects, how-ever, he sometimes becomes futile, banal where he would be imposing ; but he commands a charm which is insinuating in its moments of intimacy.