Salomé for Easter

Merci, Oscar Wilde, for the play Salomé (1891), which you wrote in Paris, in French, you rascal, and danke, Richard Strauss for the opera (1905). Thanks, opera houses the world over, for understanding the need for a counter-myth to the reformed, acceptable whore, Maria Magdalena. Last but not least, thank you, diva Teresa Stratas, dinky yogi with huge spirit.

Salome is nobody’s bitch, you might say. She has no use for an abstract God, an absent, disembodied Lover, and hasn’t the patience to seek out Jesus in some boat floating somewhere in the Sea of Galilee to cure her of her carnal longings. She’s smitten with love for the Unattainable, Unresponsive, Ascetic, here and now, in the flesh. If she can’t teach John the Baptist how earthlings make love, she’ll show him how a scorned lover takes revenge when her father, the king, is stupid enough to give her what she asks.

Wikipedia informs us that the heady mix of murder, lust, Biblical personages, erotic dance, incest, necrophilia, you name it, shocked opera audiences and even the original performers. What’s worse, though, is how gorgeous the music is, how transcendent, how the melodies waft you irretrievably away to an aesthetic realm where moral clarity isn’t as easy as certain textbooks would have us believe. Salomé continues to disturb the uninitiated to this day, including moi-même. That’s the whole point!

First performed in Dresden in 1905, Salomé hit 50 other opera houses within two years, but conductor Gustav Mahler was thwarted by Vienna’s censor, who blocked the opera ’til 1918. Its 1907 premiere in London under Thomas Beecham was “modified.” Pressure from wealthy patrons in New York closed it down after the 1907 premiere. Asked to support the ban, Edward Elgar said Strauss was the greatest genius of the age. Hmmm…

Today, Salomé is part of the operatic repertoire and gaining in relevance. You can imagine Salome as a Kardashian and John as a young evangelical who’s vowed chastity until marriage. Place your bets.

People who criticize soprano Teresa Stratas for not being “scary” are missing the point of the story. Clips from the 1974 Salomé produced by Götz Friedrich with Teresa Stratas as the bad, bad girl, Bernd Weikl as the overly good guy, Astrid Varnay as the decaying monster mother, Hans Beirer as hapless Daddy.

2 thoughts on “Salomé for Easter

  1. “Salome” is a watershed work of art. People always prattle on about “Elektra” being the superior opera, but it’s not–the text isn’t, and the music doesn’t compare. “Salome” continues the long dissolution of harmony that had begun 75-100 years before with the Beethoven-Schubert-Schumann gangbang (which was just a continuation of something that had already happened several hundred years earlier in Venice). It was the same firestorm Wagner contributed to in 1865 with “Tristan.” All the melting chords, the chromatic highs and lows, the commingling of eastern and western musical influences. In “Tristan,” the magic is all in the pit. In “Salome” it’s both in the pit and on the stage. Teresa Stratas does this justice, but she couldn’t perform it live, like Luba Welitsch, one of the best Salomes–EVER!

    • Chris,
      you’re so paaassionate about Salomé. what do you suppose it is that drives us wild the most? the music? the corpse-kissing? or is it simply Salomé’s bloodymindedness that’s communicable, like a disease…

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