Opera: Salome – Richard Strauss

Salome, a grand opera in one act, its text by Oscar Wilde, its music by Richard Strauss, received its premier production at the Royal Opera, Dresden, Dec. 9, 1905. It was prohibited in England owing to the fact that Biblical characters are introduced. In America, it was first produced Jan. 17, 1907, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where its further presentation was immediately forbidden, only one performance being given.

CHARACTERS

Salome, the daughter of Herod’s wife. Narraboth, a Syrian, captain of the guard. Iokanaan, John the Baptist, a prophet of the Lord. Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea. Tigellinus, a young Roman. Naaman, the executioner, a huge negro. The Cappadocian. Herodias, Herod’s wife. Page of Herodias. Pages, Jews, Nazarenes, slaves of Salome.

The story is suggested by the Biblical account of the decapitation of John the Baptist at the caprice of the daughter of Herodias.

The curtain rises on a terrace of the palace of Herod, tetrarch of Judea. Here are Narraboth, the Syrian, and a number of soldiers and pages; in the background is seen a cistern surrounded by a wall in which Iokanaan, or John the Baptist, is held prisoner. The moon, which proves the subject of an ensuing multitude of amazing similes, gleams in the sapphire of the Oriental sky. Narraboth is speaking of the beauty of Salome with whom he is in love. Just then Salome herself comes in from the feast, rejoicing to be free from the caresses of her licentious stepfather, Herod. As she reflects upon the glory of the night, the voice of Iokanaan issues forth solemnly, uttering the words ” The Lord bath come : the Son of Man is at hand ! ” Salome starts, listens and demands that he who has spoken be brought forth for her to see. Waving aside the slave of Herod, who bids her return to the royal company, she uses her arts upon the doting Narraboth so effectually that he disobeys Herod’s orders and brings the prophet from the cistern. No sooner does she see him, splendid in manly beauty and stately in bearing, than her barbaric nature yields to his attraction, and she bursts forth in a passionate expression of her longing for him. He repulses her, speaking the name of the Lord, calling her daughter of Babylon and of Sodom and telling her that she is no better than her sinful mother. But unabashed, she renews her ravings over his physical beauty, and begs for a touch of his mouth. Again he repulses her and again and again she repeats, ” Suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan.”

Mourning over the degeneracy of the time, he returns to his cistern but not before the unhappy Narraboth, who has witnessed the scene, slays himself, and falls between them. It is he whose father was a king, whom Herod drove from his kingdom; whose mother was a queen, whom Herodias made her slave.

Herod, the Queen and their retinue come in from the banquet-hall. They speak of Iokanaan and his prophecies and of the Nazarene who changed water into wine at a marriage in Galilee and who healed two lepers before the gate of Capernaum simply by touching them. Herod’s eyes are only for Salome. He begs her to dance that he may better observe her charms. She refuses ; he implores ; he offers her anything that she may ask ” even unto the half of his kingdom.” Then she dances the dance of the seven veils and the king asks what she will have in reward. Even the degenerate Herod is shocked when she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. He urges her to suggest something else, anything else; untold wealth, emeralds, pearls, turquoises and amber, white peacocks with gilded beaks; at last even the veil of the sanctuary, but she is obdurate. Finally he yields to her terrible will and orders the executioner to the cistern, while Salome, shaking with emotion, leans over listening for the death-struggle. Finally when the huge arm appears, she takes the bleeding head from the shield, and madly kisses its lips. Even the stars flee from the sky and the face of the moon is hidden behind clouds. As Herod, in fright and horror, hastens to depart, he hears the voice of Salome chanting ” I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan.”

” Kill that woman,” cries Herod and the soldiers crush beneath their shields Salome, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judea.

Salome had been widely heralded as unclean and revolutionary. It has proved the greatest operatic sensation since Wagner. The story is laid in the days ‘of the decadent Roman Empire, which gives an opportunity and, perhaps, presents a necessity for a flagrant display of sensualism and earthiness. It was received with greater suspicion because the text came from the pen of Oscar Wilde, a text replete with the most unique and glowing poetical figures. Strauss in his score has caught the spirit of the text with the hand of genius. In orchestration, he is a veritable revolutionist, putting aside all previously made rules, and introducing startling effects which no one before him has been daring enough, or possibly creatively big enough to employ. The work is overpowering in the vividness of its musical description. Every sound has been pinioned in the score from the screaming of white peacocks to the dripping of blood. The whole work is dramatic to a degree and it would be difficult to find another moment in opera of tenser suspense than that in which Salome waits at the cistern for the head of John.

The diversity of opinion as expressed in the countless magazine and newspaper discussions of the opera is both amazing and amusing.