Salome – Opera in one act to a libretto adapted by the composer from Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation from the French of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé [sung in German with Met Titles by Christopher Bergen]
Narraboth – Joseph Kaiser
The Page – Lucy Schaufer
First Soldier – Keith Miller
Second Soldier – Richard Bernstein
Jochanaan – Juha Uusitalo
A Cappadocian – David Won
Salome – Karita Mattila
A Slave – Reveka Evangelia Mavrovitis
Herod – Kim Begley
Herodias – Ildikó Komlósi
First Jew – Allan Glassman
Second Jew – Mark Schowalter
Third Jew – Adam Klein
Fourth Jew – John Easterlin
Fifth Jew – James Courtney
First Nazarene – Morris Robinson
Second Nazarene – Donovan Singletary
Executioner – Reginald Braithwaite
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Jürgen Flimm – Production
Santo Loquasto – Set and costume designer
James F. Ingalls – Lighting design
Doug Varone – Choreographer
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 23 September, 2008
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City
The Metropolitan Opera, following its opening night gala the previous evening, began its 2008-2009 season with a revival of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila reprising her widely acclaimed portrayal of the title role. She was joined by a strong international cast, featuring an auspicious house debut by her compatriot, bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo as Jochanaan, and excellent performances by other principals, including Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser as Narraboth, English tenor Kim Begley as Herod, and Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi as Herodias. Patrick Summers masterfully conducted the Met’s 105-piece orchestra in Strauss’s challenging score.
“Salome” is one of those few works that stand as milestones in the development of music. Alex Ross, in his brilliant book, “The Rest Is Noise”, aptly begins his account of music in the twentieth-century with the May 1906 performance of “Salome” conducted by the composer in Graz that drew such musical luminaries as Mahler (accompanied by his wife, Alma), Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Berg, all of whom (although evidently not Puccini, who also attended the Graz performance) were influenced by Strauss’s audacious and innovative work.
Set to the composer’s adaptation of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s French-language play, “Salomé”, it was Strauss’s first successful opera and was soon followed by “Elektra”, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss was a successful operatic composer for the remainder of his long career, with a string of collaborations with von Hofmannsthal from “Der Rosenkavalier” in 1910 to “Arabella” in 1932, and such other works as “Intermezzo” (1923) and “Capriccio” (1941). But none of those later operas had the jarring impact, in both musical and dramatic content, of “Salome” and “Elektra”.
Wilde’s play, which was written for Sarah Bernhardt although she never performed in it, enjoyed a successful Berlin run in 1902 in Lachmann’s German translation. Strauss saw it there and immediately began setting Lachmann’s words to music, ultimately shortening the libretto by about one-third, but leaving Salome’s climactic monologue essentially intact.
The opera, like the play, takes as its starting point the tale in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark in which the step-daughter of Herod, tetrarch of Judea, dances before him and demands – and receives – the head of John the Baptist as her reward. Superimposed on that underlying story, however, are themes of obsession, decadence, depravity, eroticism, lust and necrophilia, all of which are brilliantly reflected in Strauss’s powerful score, which fits the words and action like a glove. It uses just the right touch of orientalism to suit the opera’s setting and subject matter, and provides sharply contrasting harmonic and melodic elements to distinguish and portray appropriately each of the principal characters.
Although the action of the opera takes place at a very specific place and time – King Herod’s palace east of the Dead Sea during the lifetime of Jesus – Flimm’s 2004 production, as described by the Met, “places the scene in a non-specific modern setting”. Santo Loquasto’s set depicts a quite modern terrace adjoining the palace’s tall, mosaic-tiled sloping facade, with one spiral staircase going upward behind the palace wall and another leading downward to the banquet-hall. On the opposite side of the stage are stylised sand dunes, atop which black-clad, white-winged angels intermittently appear to overlook the action. In front of the dunes, atop the cistern in which Jochanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned, is a metal framework supporting a rope-and-pulley apparatus such as might be found at a pithead.
Loquasto costumed Salome in a silk cocktail dress, Herod in an all-white suit, and Herodias in a long green gown. Herod’s guests were dressed in formal attire, Narraboth and his officers had vaguely middle-eastern uniforms and bore modern firearms, and the quarrelsome Jews wore 18th-century Eastern European Hassidic costumes. Only Jochanaan’s prisoner’s garb might pass as fitting the opera’s supposed biblical setting.
There does not appear to be any reason for the Flimm production’s departure from the opera’s biblical setting. There surely is no censorial pressure today such as led the Metropolitan Opera in 1907 to cancel its production after the opera’s first performance, or to the Lord Chamberlain’s requiring the first Covent Garden production in 1910 to delete all biblical references and remove the head of John the Baptist from the final scene. Fortunately, Flimm’s direction is very effective in communicating the essential elements of the opera, although he does tinker with some significant details, particularly in the final scene.
Mattila’s Salome was unquestionably the evening’s cynosure, gripping the audience not only vocally and terpsichorically (in the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, choreographed by Doug Varone), but also dramatically. Strauss himself recognised that he had created a role that impossibly calls for a 16-year-old with the voice of Isolde, but Mattila came as close to meeting both of these criteria as one could imagine.
Undaunted by the wide vocal and emotional range of the role, she sang with both subtlety and power, her voice carrying easily above the huge orchestra, yet still managed to give a convincing portrayal of an adolescent. She was in constant motion, climbing, dancing and gesturing even when the vocal focus of the score lay elsewhere, and displayed a teenager’s impetuosity and petulance in her reaction to Jochanaan’s repeated rebuffs of her advances and in her own resistance to Herod’s importuning.
Strauss was immediately intrigued by the possibilities suggested by the opening line of Wilde’s play, “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!” (How beautiful the Princess Salome is tonight), and sketched out musical ideas for it even before he had seen the play performed. His instantly captivating setting of the opera’s moonlit opening, beginning with a rising clarinet roulade, introduces Narraboth, the Syrian captain of the guard who, beginning with those opening words, exhibits a hopeless obsession with Salome, which persists despite the warnings of a page (who is likewise obsessed with him). Joseph Kaiser portrayed the love-struck Narraboth with a bright and clear tenor voice, and mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer was fine as the page.
Soon the off-stage voice of Jochanaan is heard from the cistern in which Herod has imprisoned him, declaring the coming of Christ. Juha Uusitalo gave the role a strong characterisation, his resonant, lyrical vocal line contrasting sharply with the more highly chromatic music that preceded it. When Salome – who has left Herod’s birthday banquet to escape from religious quarrels, ill-mannered Romans and Herod’s lustful attentions – hears Jochanaan’s voice, she wheedles Narraboth into defying the King’s orders by ordering the prophet brought up from the cistern (to a wonderful, brass-dominated orchestral accompaniment). As the guardsmen turned a large wheel, Jochanaan rose from the cistern in chains, seated in a small cage-like capsule, an effect that unfortunately diluted the drama of this critical moment in the opera.
In the extended scene that follows, Salome becomes increasingly enamoured of Jochanaan, lusting first for his ivory-white body, then his black hair, and finally his red lips. Each time, Jochanaan rebuffs her, calling her “daughter of Babylon” and “daughter of Sodom”, expressing his revulsion at the immorality of Salome’s mother, Herodias, the tetrarch’s wife. Mattila and Uusitalo sang these alternating and contrasting solos with considerable fervour – hers being of the erotic variety and his fanatically religious. As Jochanaan’s hatred intensifies, so does Salome’s ardour, revulsing Narraboth to the point of fatally stabbing himself. But Salome takes no notice; in a subtle but brilliant gesture, Mattila casually kicked aside the outstretched hand of her dying admirer. By the scene’s end, Salome is fixated on her desire to kiss the prophet’s mouth, and he, beseeching her to seek out Jesus for salvation, curses her as he descends back into the cistern – to another powerful orchestral passage that soon heralds the entrance of Herod and Herodias.
Up to this point, the opera has been focused on the interaction between Salome and Jochanaan, which has proceeded despite the vain efforts of Narraboth to keep them apart. The remainder of the opera is dominated by the sparring of Herod and Salome and its tragic aftermath, with Herodias unable to avert these shocking events.
Herod, despite repeated reproaches from Herodias for his lustful attentions to her daughter, asks Salome – in a quite erotic manner – to join him in drinking wine and eating fruit and to sit beside him, but she petulantly refuses these offers. Kim Begley was outstanding in singing Herod’s leaping vocal line as well as in portraying his correspondingly erratic behaviour, and Ildikó Komlósi was a convincingly disapproving Herodias, her clear and powerful mezzo voice strikingly rendering Strauss’s chilling music. Throughout this scene, the silent, dark angels atop the dunes added a corroborating force to Herod’s numerous premonitions of evil, including his feeling a cold wind and hearing a noise like the beating of huge wings, all fearfully expressed by Begley and unsympathetically dismissed by Komlósi’s Herodias.
Jochanaan’s voice from the cistern sets off a heated theological argument among the Jews and Nazarenes, and when Jochanaan declares that the day of the Lord has arrived, Herodias demands that Herod silence the prophet, which Herod, although quite disturbed by what he has heard, refuses to do. Instead, he asks Salome to dance for him, which she agrees to do only if he will swear an oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Ignoring Herodias’s pleas that Salome not dance, the reeling Herod swears the oath and Salome agrees to dance.
Salome’s dance, as choreographed by Varone, could aptly be renamed “The Dance of the One Veil” (which she rather quickly discarded). The remainder of the dance was, for the most part, not so much erotic in itself, but more a parody of stylized elements of contemporary erotic performances, including pole-dancing, lap-dancing, and bump-and-grind strip tease as her tuxedo-like garments were shed, revealing her black lingerie. At the end of the dance, after her silk stockings had been peeled off, Mattila finally stripped off in quick succession her camisole and knickers, leaving her completely naked for just a moment before Herod’s formally dressed courtiers draped her with a robe.
Following the dance, Herod’s erotically charged delight soon turns to horror when Salome slyly reveals her demand for the head of Jochanaan on a silver charger. Begley and Komlósi were at their most effective as Herod entreats Salome to accept a different reward, and Herodias expresses delight at her daughter’s demand for the prophet’s head. When Herod finally gave in and the executioner was dispatched to kill Jochanaan, the orchestra created an almost palpable tension as Salome impatiently waited above the cistern. Above a pp bass drum roll and double bass tremolos came a series of eerie sounds – like a woman’s stifled groans, says Strauss’s score – made by four double basses played by pinching the string high up above the fingerboard and striking it sharply with the bow.
Instead of having the executioner’s hand emerge from the cistern with Jochanaan’s head on a charger, as the libretto dictates, Flimm has the disembodied head rise in the cage, a much less dramatic entrance. (The absence of any apparent explanation of how the cage was made to rise was also a bit disconcerting, particularly after the elaborate show of wheel-turning at the raising of Jochanaan earlier on.)
Despite the exhausting demands of her role throughout the evening, Mattila had plenty of vocal and dramatic energy left for the extended monologue that serves as a musical recapitulation and brings the opera to an end. Mattila’s powerful rendition of this ecstatic music (the ‘Isolde’ half of the role’s job-description) was shattering in its intensity as she triumphed 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 mouth in an orgasmic frenzy, she finally proclaims “Ich habe deine Mund geküsst, Jochanaan” (I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan).
Herod, who had cringed with revulsion throughout Salome’s lengthy apostrophe to the severed head, finally gives the order that she be put to death. Here Flimm again departs from the libretto’s stage directions, which call for Herod’s soldiers to crush Salome under their shields. Instead, Herod orders the executioner, who has remained on stage, to kill Salome, and she (almost) bares her breast in anticipation of the executioner’s knife as the curtain falls. This ending to the opera is in a way more dramatic than what the libretto specifies, but it lacks the crude and shocking impact of Strauss’ ending.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was in top form throughout this performance. The woodwind players gave an exotic touch to the opera’s middle-eastern setting and the brass came through powerfully to underscore the prophetic words of Jochanaan and the opera’s violent ending. Strings and percussion combined to create moments of exquisite tension, and the string playing was wonderfully lyrical in Salome’s most amorous professions. Patrick Summers kept the orchestra in virtually perfect balance with the singers, allowing them to be heard throughout the opera despite the overwhelming forces in the pit, without losing any of the dramatic power of Strauss’s score.
- Further performances are on September 26 & 30 and October 4 (matinee) 7, 11 & 16
- Metropolitan Opera