Opera: Herodiade – Jules Massenet

“Herodiade,” an opera in four acts and seven tableaux, with words by Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont and music by Jules Massenet, was produced at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, Dec. 19, 1881.


John. Herod, King of Galilee. Phanuel, a Chaldean. Vitellius, Roman proconsul. The High Priest. A voice in the temple. Salome. Herodias. A young Babylonian woman. Merchants, Hebrew soldiers, Roman soldiers, priests, Levites, temple servitors, seamen, scribes, Pharisees, Galileans, Samaritans, Sadducees, Ethiopians, Nubians, Arabs, Romans.

The action takes place in Jerusalem in the year 30, A. D. A court outside the palace of Herod with adjacent groves of cedars and oleanders is shown. In the distance, the Dead Sea lies in the embrace of the Judean hills. A caravan rests in the valley, awaiting dawn. When the light breaks in the sky, the drowsy scene changes to one of activity and merchants from many countries, followed by slaves carrying heavy burdens, come to the gate. They are true exponents of an age of discord and come nearly to blows over the question of the comparative excellence of their horses. Sage Phanuel, the Chaldean, reproaches them for their foolish quarrel. He speaks of the evil times, of the unrest of the world, of the deaf ear it turns to the immortal voice which tells of love and pardon and eternal life. He predicts that the supremacy of Rome is nearing its end.

The girl Salome appears. She has long been searching for her mother. Phanuel regards her with deep pity, for he knows what she does not, that she is the daughter of Herod’s wife. Salome speaks with great feeling of the Prophet John and, even at her words, his voice is heard in the distance, hailing Jerusalem. At the same moment, the dancing-girls file out of the palace. Herod appears and eagerly scans their ranks in search of Salome, a glimpse of whom has infatuated him. Herodias, his consort, follows in agitation, to complain that in the morning a rudely clad man had risen in her path to curse her and call her Jezebel. It was John, the infamous apostle, who preaches baptism and the new faith. When Herod inquires brusquely what she would have him do, she asks for the prophet’s head, trying to beguile him with recollections of the past. Herod refuses on the ground that John is too popular with the Jews. When John comes upon the scene, he curses the wicked Herodias anew. After the court has retired, Salome runs to fall at his feet and to sob out her love and adoration. He reminds her that her youth can have little in common with his dark life and the stony road he must travel, but he speaks to her of a higher love.

The second act shows the magnificent chamber of Herod. The King reclines languidly upon his couch, while slaves perform their voluptuous dances before him. He raves of Salome. A Babylonian woman gives him a philtre more vividly to call up the young girl’s image. Phanuel reproaches him for occupying his thoughts with a woman, when misery and unrest are growing in the land and when all about him is revolt and bloodshed. The strength of the kingdom is threatened for many of its allies have lately gone over to Rome. Herod boasts of his hold upon the people but the wiser Phanuel reminds him that the people are inconstant. Herod refers disdainfully to the new faith and declares that he will stifle it.

The scene shifts to the public square overlooked by the temple of Solomon on Mount Moriah. Here is assembled a motley, excited crowd. They praise Herod because he has promised to lift the Roman yoke from their necks. As the King and the people plan heroic deeds, the Roman fanfare is heard and Herodias appears in a high place to cry that the oppressor is at the door. Vitellius, the Roman proconsul, with his escort, enters the gates and as he appeals to the people offering them liberty and their just desires, to Herod’s chagrin, they rally about his enemy. Above everything else is heard the voices of Salome and the women of Canaan, welcoming John. They cry ” GIory to him who cometh in the name of the Lord ! ” Herod catches sight of Salome and Herodias following his gaze knows that she has a rival.

The scene of Act III is laid at night, in the dwelling of Phanuel. The philosopher, bowed down by his sense of the peril of the wicked city, consults the stars. Hither Herodias comes secretly to ask him the course of the star of the woman who has robbed her of the love of the king. Reluctantly he tells her that their stars are strangely associated and that hers is covered with blood. She laughs, saying that it is the blood of revenge. Phanuel reveals to her his knowledge that she is a mother and points to where below them walks her daughter. With horror Herodias recognizes that her daughter and her rival are one and the same.

The scene changes to the temple, where Salome comes to pray for the safety of John. Hither Herod also repairs.

Judea is in the hands of the hated Romans. He reasons that if he saves John, the grateful Jews will help him to throw off the yoke. Then he sees Salome for the first time face to face. The terrified girl learns that she has had the misfortune to secure his favor. He swears that with his power as King he will possess her and her love. Defiantly she returns that she already loves one greater than Caesar and the heroes. Herod declares that he will find this man and deliver them both to the executioner. Now the priests and the people invade the temple and before the Holy of Holies with its thousand lights perform the sacred dances. John is present and the priests exhort the people to destroy this man who has proclaimed a false king of the Jews. Herod is appointed to judge him. To all questions the prophet answers well. His prophecy is peace and good will, his arms are The Word, his end is Liberty. Herod whispers to him to serve his projects and he will save his life, but John answers that he has naught to do with the schemes of kings. ” Death to him,” shout the priests. ” Crucify the false Messiah,” cries Herodias. ” Let us see if God will deliver him,” mock the people. Salome begs to be allowed to share his fate and now Herod knows the identity of her lover.

“And I was going to save him,” he mutters. ” You are right,” he says sagely to the priests. ” He conspires against Caesar and Rome. A Holy prophet indeed ! He is the lover of Salome, the courtesan.”

” Death,” cries the rabble and John, unafraid, is led away by the guards.

The last act shows the vault beneath the temple, where the prisoners are kept. John is reconciled to death but he longs for the presence of Salome, until bitterly he questions whether he is the herald of the true God and the elect of the apostles or only a man like other men. Salome finds her way to him and they delight in their reunion, careless of death. They are interrupted by the priests who take John to execution while slaves drag Salome to Herod.

The scene shifts to a banqueting-hall in the palace of the proconsul. Hither Salome is brought. She prays for death with John, first to Herod, then to the Queen whom she invokes as a wife. ” If only you were a mother,” she moans. Herodias shudders at the word, and Salome speaks bitterly of the unnatural mother who abandoned her to make an infamous marriage. The executioner appears upon a terrace with a sword dripping with blood and Salome, with a terrible cry, precipitates herself upon Herodias crying that she has killed the prophet.

” Pity,” begs Herodias, ” I am your mother.” At this frightful announcement Salome thrusts the dagger into her own bosom and dies.