by JEFF WINSLOW
Sex and violence. Any B movie director knows what packs ’em in. Although the composer Richard Strauss finished his opera “Salome” in 1905, long before such things showed up on the silver screen, he had many of the same instincts. He loved to shock audiences by, say, juxtaposing soaring melodies supported by lush harmonies with violent or vulgar outbursts, and he used his craft to keep folks guessing as much as he used it to enchant or to comfort. Nor was his massive ego much affected by refined criticism. “I may not be a first-rate composer,” Strauss once quipped, “but I am a first-class second-rate composer.” Not surprisingly, he became famous and enormously successful. Written as he was turning 40, “Salome,” which opens this weekend in Portland Opera’s new production at Keller Auditorium, assured both for the rest of his long life.
Even people who only know a little about the opera know about the infamous striptease “Dance of the Seven Veils” and John the Baptist’s severed, bloody head on a silver platter – the sex and the violence. But beyond that, the entire libretto, which follows Oscar Wilde’s play almost literally, is riddled with conflict. Wilde is known as a master of witty repartee, but in “Salome,” the thrusts and parries turn vicious, and much blood is drawn, metaphorically speaking, before there’s any talk of severing heads.
A litany of the various conflicts makes a pretty fair synopsis, referred here to the traditional staging:
Outside a banquet hall where Herod, ruler of Galilee, is feasting with his wife Herodias, her daughter Salome, and various officials and dignitaries from around the region, the Syrian captain of the guards, Narraboth, is talking at cross purposes with his page. Narraboth is captivated by Salome, but his page keeps trying to distract him with doleful descriptions of the rising moon, scolding him for his infatuation.
There’s a sudden uproar from the hall; a doctrinal argument has broken out among the assembled religious worthies. (Somewhat uncomfortably for modern audiences, Strauss, following Wilde, refers to them merely as “the Jews.” But it underscores that the Roman-installed Herod and his family were not considered Jewish by the religious elite.)
Salome rushes out into the moonlight. Narraboth attempts to attend to her while his page continues to scold, but she ignores them both. Suddenly Jochanaan – John the Baptist – speaks out from the nearby cistern where he is imprisoned. Fascinated, Salome demands that the guards bring him up so she can speak with him, but they demur and pass the buck to Narraboth. He refuses, but she knows his weakness, and she really turns it on, turning his resolve to jelly. When Jochanaan finally emerges, she is instantly smitten. To his increasing amazement, she waxes poetic, even erotic, first about the whiteness of his body, then about the blackness of his hair, and finally about the redness of his lips, demanding physical contact with each, and pretending to be revolted by each in turn as he denies her more and more emphatically. When she demands a kiss, he’s heard enough; he damns her vehemently and returns to his cistern. (Narraboth, in the meantime, is so horrified and mortified that he kills himself.)
Herod and his guests spill out into the moonlight, with Herod, who is smitten himself, looking for Salome, as a reproving Herodias follows close behind. Everything Herod says, Herodias contradicts. He tries to interest Salome in wine, then in fruit, and finally in sitting down beside him. Each time she curtly refuses, causing Herodias to cackle and Herod to rage. He becomes confused, and Jochanaan speaks out from the cistern, triggering another doctrinal uproar. (It’s clear from the buffoonish nastiness of the music to this, the only ensemble scene in the opera, that Strauss agreed with what one of the guards said earlier, that such arguments are ridiculous.) Just as it seems about to get out of hand, Jochanaan cuts in with an extended prophecy of doom, which causes Herodias to demand that he be silenced.
Instead Herod turns to Salome and asks her to dance for him. Herodias is outraged and Salome refuses, but again and again Herod implores, swearing that he will give her anything she wants in return, up to half his kingdom – so she relents, ignoring Herodias’s continued objections, and performs the lascivious Dance of the Seven Veils. (Stagecraft is usually employed to simulate the removal of the last veil.) Herod is beside himself with excitement, and when she asks for something on a silver platter, he’s also no doubt relieved that his kingdom is all still his, so he prattles on and on about how charming she is.
It all goes terribly wrong in a heartbeat, of course. Herod, for all his faults, does respect, even fear Jochanaan as a holy man, and the last thing he wants to do is execute him. He plies Salome again and again with the promise of this treasure and that, even offering her sacred artifacts from the temple (to the vocal consternation of the religious worthies). Each time, she monomaniacally demands Jochanaan’s head. If Herodias cackled before, she’s in stitches now, heaping ridicule on Herod while he yells at her to shut up. Finally he gives in, observing sourly that Salome “is indeed her mother’s child.” The executioner goes down into the cistern, and after an apparent struggle with himself, manages to do the deed and bring up the required head on a platter.
There follows the only extended scene in the whole opera which is free from conflict, as Salome gloats in her twisted triumph over Jochanaan’s rejection. She goes on and on like the willful, spoiled brat she is, apparently believing she has been wronged in love, lamenting that if only Jochanaan had looked at her, he would have loved her. She finally sucks his dead lips, while Herod looks on in fear and disgust and Herodias beams with approval. Salome is a bit taken aback by the taste of the blood, but then she rallies in a near-orgasm of exultation. It’s finally too much. As if a mainspring had been winding, always winding, during her deceptively conflict-free soliloquy, it now snaps. Herod orders the guards to kill and they rush forward to crush her under their shields.
With all this conflict, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the music Strauss wrote for “Salome” turned out to be the most outrageously edgy and dissonant of his entire career. And yet the opera was a huge success from opening night, which seems strange in light of all the 20th century hand-wringing about such music driving audiences away.
The devil, as always, is in the details. Strauss was not a composer to worry overly about theory and system. There was no ideology in his use of dissonance, as there was in the later second Viennese school of Schoenberg. Instead he used it almost cinematographically, building it as required out of bits and pieces easily recognizable from the more traditional sounding parts of the opera, much as a filmmaker might combine visual motifs to make a point or underscore a mood. Most of the dissonances can be broken down into just two conflicting keys, reflecting the conflicts taking place on stage. (When Salome first views Jochanaan’s severed head, Strauss seemed to believe her ecstatic reaction required three keys. Whatever it took to get the required goosebumps.) And in his orchestration, a skill in which Strauss was second to none, one of those keys usually predominates, so the effect isn’t nearly so discordant as it would sound if played on the piano.
Maybe most important, supporting the twists and turns of the dialogue gives Strauss plenty of opportunity for those lush harmonies and soaring melodies that were a mainstay of the late 19th century (and not coincidentally, the film music of the classic Hollywood era), so whenever things threaten to go clear over the edge, relief is just around the corner.
Even so, “Salome” is a long way from Brahms and Wagner, who had died less than a generation before. Strauss throws down the gauntlet at the very beginning, unusually subtly for him, by altering just one note of a standard minor-scale upbeat. That slight alteration turns it into a mashup of two scales a half-octave apart. The signature melodic fragment that follows leaves another half-octave hanging in mid-air. A half-octave may sound harmless, but it is the tritone, the interval that medieval theorists called “diabolus in musica,” one of the most dissonant, certainly the most theoretically troublesome, of all two-note intervals.
Nor does Strauss do anything to smooth things over in the rest of the opening scene, in which an apparently nearly random succession of major and minor chords follows rising instrumental lines evocative of the rising moon. Just when he seems to be finally settling down in one key, the first religious uproar breaks out and the harmony accordingly breaks into two simultaneous keys, each as malleable as the quasi-random section before.
In contrast, the music of Jochanaan’s various religious pronouncements sticks solidly to familiar chords and progressions, almost too familiar and square, as if Strauss didn’t think spiritual matters in general were very interesting. When Jochanaan reviles Herodias or rejects Salome’s advances, you can bet he sings a very different tune. Another personal comment, perhaps, erupts in the music for Herodias’s many shrill outbursts. Strauss dearly loved his wife of over 50 years, Pauline de Ahna, but she had been an opera prima donna and was a famously difficult woman.
Salome herself sings a wide range of material. When stung by Jochanaan’s rejection, or when making demands in the face of opposition, her music is as harsh as any in the opera, but when vain, when turning on the charm, or when overcome by desire, her music is as lush and beautiful as anything in German Romanticism. Herod can hardly keep it together while on stage, and his music is similarly all over the map. In the whole opera, however, there’s nothing more grating than anything in a classic film noir score. In truth, the theme to the classic TV series “The Twilight Zone” is more extreme. Specialists of the time may have been shocked, but the general audience lapped it up.
It seems logical, in an era when repertory operas are re-staged, even in various fanciful settings their composers never intended, that such a conflict-laden opera as “Salome,” which is after all set in the ancient Middle East, should be re-staged in the conflict laden contemporary Middle East. Stage director Stephen Lawless appears to have done just that, and the apocalyptic decay of scenic designer Benoit Dugardyn’s sets should coordinate well with Strauss’s music, which to present-day audiences reeks of decadence. Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan, who wowed Portland audiences at this fall’s Big Night, should deliver a stunning Salome. It promises to be a blockbuster, as sexy and violent as the Hollywood spectacles it foreshadowed.
Portland Opera presents Richard Strauss’s “Salome ” November 1, 3, 7, 9 at Keller Auditorium. Tickets available online or call 503-241-1802.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a board member for Cascadia Composers.
Want to read more about Oregon opera and other classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!