salome : a badass opera and why you should love it

Opera is not for everyone. and then along came Strauss' Salome.

BASIC PLOT : (based on Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé):

Jochanann (John the Baptist to those of you who know the Bible) is imprisoned in the Palace of Herod for denouncing the king’s incestuous marriage which was a violation of old testament law. salome (daughter of Herod) overhears Jochanann cursing her parents from his cell and becomes interested in him. she manipulates the captain of the guard (who is in love with her) into allowing her to see jochanaan in exchange for promising to smile at him, even though it violates the king’s orders.

Salome is overcome with desire for Jochanaan at first sight (possibly as a way to rebel against her parents) and continues to throw herself at him sexually, being rejected each time. Jochanaan is returned to his cell and the captain of the guard, realizing Salome manipulated him and does not care for him, kills himself.

King Herod slips on the blood from the guard’s death and begins hallucinating, starting to lust after Salome, who rejects his advances. After many failed attempts, he begs Salome to dance for him, saying he will give her whatever her heart desires in return, much to the objections of his wife.

Salome dances the “Dance of the Seven Veils” (which the opera is famous for), an ethnic strip tease which she ends naked at his feet. Salome then demands Jochanaan’s head given to her on a silver platter. King Herod offers her jewels and even half his kingdom instead but she insists on the head and the King caves to her demands and presents her the head.

In the final scene (in the youtube video below) Salome basically declares her love for the head, kissing it passionately, which she could never do while he was alive. She sings about the bitter taste on her lips (blood) but convinces herself it must be love. The King, terrified of the monster his daughter has become, orders his guards to kill her and the stage goes black with her lifeless body futilely clutching for Jochanaan’s head.

what a twisted bitch huh?

COOL FACTS:

-Finding someone to play the role of Salome is almost impossibly difficult…since Strauss has written a part with not only a giant vocal range but requiring the skills of a skilled professional dancer. many stagings have called for a stunt double for the dance.

-Some performers literally do follow strauss’s instructions and are completely naked on stage at the end of the dance. most wind up in a flesh colored body suit

-Strauss uses leitmotifs throughout the opera, with different emotions of Salome and Herod and Jochanaan getting different themes. knowing these makes the ending all the more shocking when you can hear the good and bad duking it out against each other in the orchestra.

- at the end once Salome has finished kissing the head and her last note the orchestra takes over and plays what music historian Gary Schmidgall refers to as the “most sickening chord in all of opera”. it refers to the polytonal chord (dom A7 smashed together with an F#M) that is approached and left by C# major chords. the weight of all the depraved ecstasy and lust and rejection and horror almost rip the music apart…with something so painful it only lasts for a moment…and while being disturbing is one of the most moving in the entire opera.

I’ve included the final scene below…the last 5 minutes contains some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard and it will send chills down your spine. Elgar was dead on when he said it was the work of a genius. if you like what you hear, check out the Solti/Berlin Phil/Decca recording. Its incredible, especially since Birgit Nilsson is incredible.

Start at 4:55 to hear the final number, Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan.

Get the recordings mentioned in this post:

For purely audio, take the left. If you liked the video above and want to see the whole production, the right is the DVD with Teresa Stratas as Salome. She does a masterful job.

Strauss: Salome
By Birgit Nilsson, Grace Hoffmann, Gerhard Stolze, Waldemar Kmentt, Eberhard Wächter, Tom Krause, Nigel Douglas
R. Strauss - Salome
Starring Teresa Stratas, Astrid Varnay, Bernd Weikl, Hans Beirer, Wieslaw Ochman