By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note Salome may be streamed from www.metopera.org
Sunday, May 31
R. Strauss’s Salome ~ 1Hr. & 46Mins.
Conducted by Patrick Summers; starring Karita Mattila, Ildikó Komlósi, Kim Begley, Joseph Kaiser, and Juha Uusitalo. Transmitted live on October 11, 2008.
Well – last night was a wonderful one for the kids – but that is definitely not the case tonight! Tonight may even be objectionable to many adults given this opera’s underlying themes of sexual obsession, decadence, depravity, eroticism, incest, lust, and necrophilia (and that’s not the whole list!). In 1905, Richard Strauss turned the opera world upside down with this gritty, salacious, completely unprecedented one-act bombshell. He added the most audacious, modern score he had yet created to Oscar Wilde’s (1893) play (written in French because the English censors would not allow it to be performed) which was a scandalous take on the biblical tale of King Herod Antipas, his current wife, Herodias, and his step-daughter, Salome. To many ears, the music sounded so completely new that many hesitated to call much of it music! By the time the crazed anti-heroine (definitely hysterical in the purest theatrical sense – see my article on La Sonnambula) had finished the notorious Dance of the Seven Veils and stood on stage entirely stripped of clothing – many in the audience had the sense that Strauss had done the same to the music itself – and that was even before the last scandalous scene in which she literally makes love to the bloody, severed head of John the Baptist.
It is no wonder – even 100 years later – that Met audiences have had mixed reactions to this sizzling Salome. Whether or not you are a fan of the opera itself, however, Karita Mattila is indisputably one of the greatest Salomes of all time. She utterly becomes Oscar Wilde’s petulant, willful, and lust-driven heroine. With Strauss’s groundbreaking music magnifying the degenerate atmosphere and building the erotic tension, this is one opera that is almost as shocking today as it was at its premiere in 1905 .
The versatile Finnish soprano (believe it or not, we last saw her in another landmark performance as the dying prioress in Dialogues des Carmélites) certainly caused a stir at the Met in 2004, with one of the sexiest versions of Salome’s striptease ever (along with the great Maria Ewing who followed her lead in 2009). Prior to these two, divas had most always used ballet trained doubles to perform the dance – and do the striptease! Dressed in a tuxedo, reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, Mattila disrobes in the sultry dance, choreographed by Doug Varone that notably ends with full frontal nudity – albeit only for a second or two (and not in the cleaned up HD version!). Alex Ross reported that by the end of the opera, even the sophisticated New York audience was “gobsmacked.” Mattila reprised the role in the 2008 run at the Met which includes this Live in HD broadcast (though intent on avoiding an R rating, the broadcast avoids the nudity).
Salome is painted here as a spoiled young woman fascinated by the effect she has on other people – especially men. The fact that virtually all of the men around her feed that characterization is inconsequential – there are all the leering men of Herod’s court, and Narraboth, Captain of the Guard (who actually loves her and so accedes to her demands to see Jochanaan, but then stabs himself when he is unable to watch her attempts to seduce another man), and of course, there is the smitten King Herod, himself (tenor Kim Begley) – all are constantly ogling her.
Salome, however, is fixated on – and completely exasperated by – Jochanaan (John the Baptist, sung by the imposing Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo). We first hear him booming from the underground cistern where Herod keeps him prisoner – cursing Herod and Herodias (but mostly Herodias for her incestuous marriage to Herod – and here I thought it took two to commit incest). He also makes incomprehensible prophesies about Jesus which cause Herod’s dinner guests to argue among themselves, but also to fear him. After Narraboth raises Jochanaan from the cistern to please Salome, there is the crucial scene where he is in chains, is taunted and teased by Salome, but steadfastly rejects her. Jochanaan alternately bellows condemnations of Salome’s incestuous mother, Herodias (the earthy mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi), issues prophesies concerning Jesus’ divinity, and absolutely refuses to be moved by Salome. If he will not be smitten by Salome, as all the others are, then with biblical vengeance she will smite him, presumably by bending Herod to her will. The actual reality of whose will is bent by whom is quite another issue. After all, it is Herod who finally succeeds in pressuring Salome to dance for him, and over the violent objections of Herodias.
This production, like most all others, dismisses the influence of Herod’s lechery on Salome which compels her to seek revenge – on both Herod and Jochanaan. Like the men in Wilde’s play, this interpretation lets men have their fun with little or no moral judgment imposed on them. They disregard women and prophets alike, and then behave as though it is they who are victimized when a woman retaliates in the only way she can.
Herod easily throws his power around, causing harm without regard for anyone or anything other than himself. We are not encouraged to make any connections between his behaviour and its consequences. He is a victim of women’s (Herodias and Salome) insanity (oh where have we heard this before) when the consequences of his own behavior come home to roost.
In the final scene, Salome ‘triumphs’ at having prevailed over Jochanaan’ s refusal to allow her to kiss his mouth. Singing to his severed head, she repeats her earlier praises of his beauty, sure that he would have loved her had he but looked upon her, adding that “the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death”. Then, bestowing kisses on the dead prophet’s bloody mouth in an uncontrolled frenzy, she finally proclaims “Ich habe deine Mund geküsst, Jochanaan” (I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan). For that, she is murdered on the spot by Herod’s order.
Forewarned is forearmed – watch if you have a strong stomach – or you could just listen if you don’t!
1. Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” at the Met. Photo Credit : Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Karita Mattila (Salomé) and Joseph Kaiser (Narraboth) in Richard Strauss’s “Salome” at the Met. Photo Credit : Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
3. Juha Uusitalo as Jochanaan and Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” at the Met. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Karita Mattila (Salomé) at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera