“How beautiful is the princess Salome this evening!” From its opening moments, Richard Strauss’s opera entices and shocks the listener, just as its heroine entices and then horrifies King Herod with her demand for John the Baptist’s head. The clarinet traces a delicate, upward path in the key of C-sharp minor, collapses back to the tonic, and then rises to an E sharp, the first instance of that mysterious, minor-to-major disorientation in harmony that pervades the entire opera. The famous dance of the seven veils is itself an exercise in musical seduction, a serpentine strip-tease that oscillates between Viennese waltz and Orientalist fantasy.
The libretto to what Strauss called his “music-drama” derives from a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, a French-language play that so shocked audiences with its portrayal of biblical and sexual themes that it was initially banned in England. It first came to the stage in Paris at the Théatre de l’Oeuvre in 1896. Strauss himself witnessed a 1902 performance of Wilde’s play at Max Reinhardt’s “Little Theater” in Berlin, and he set about transforming the play into a post-Wagnerian dreamwork of erotic and musical transgression. Rehearsals in Dresden were plagued with controversy. The young woman assigned to sing the role of Salome threatened to quit. “I won’t do it,” she declared. “I’m a decent woman.” But the December 1905 premiere was a great success, and the performers were called back to the stage no less than thirty-eight times. Scandal and threats of censorship plagued the opera for many years. A performance in Vienna under the baton of Gustav Mahler was blocked “on religious and moral grounds.”
Its New York premiere, at the Metropolitan Opera, infuriated J.P. Morgan, who tried to shut down further performances.The Met’s new production for the fall 2016 season showcases the American soprano Patricia Racette in the title role, and the Serbian-born Željko Lučić as Jochanaan (John the Baptist). In the play’s harrowing finale, Salome kisses the bloodied lips of the murdered prophet. In this season of false prophets and political outrage, the opera’s power to transfigure horror into high art may bring a kind of solace.
For more information, visit metopera.org.
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