The performances and much of the music in Richard Strauss’ Salome are the most melodramatic of any opera I’ve ever experienced. But this is to be expected since, as that old expression goes, “consider the source”: The New Testament. However, as with Mel Gibson’s dark, despicably dreary, sadistic 2004 The Passion of the Christ, the operatic version of John the Baptist’s (Icelandic baritone Tomas Tomasson plays the prophet called here Jochanaan) disastrous encounter with Salome (New Hampshire soprano Patricia Racette) is derived from brief Biblical passages.
Just as Gibson conjured up his delusional motion picture Passion play from only about two sentences or two paragraphs in The New Testament (his sick flick is apparently more about Gibson’s mental illness than anything actually in the Bible per se), Oscar Wilde’s 1890s play, which Strauss adapted in 1905, is derived from the Gospels of Mark 6:17-29 and Matthew 14:3-11. Both Wilde and Strauss - who based his libretto on Hedwig Lachmann’s translation of wild Oscar’s Salome, which was banned from being performed on the London stage in 1892, opening in Paris four years later - greatly elaborated upon the flimsy Biblical source material. (Salome is sung in German, accompanied by English supertitles.)
In doing so, they turned the historical figure of Salome into the über-femme fatale of all time. Film noir has nothing on this titillating temptress. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] Both the play and one act opera are filled with extremely, overtly sexual undertones and overtones, that culminate with Salome’s performing of the salacious, sensuous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Preceding this blatant rumba is the, shall we say, tête-à-tête between Salome and Jochanaan, who has been apprehended by Herod (Brooklynite tenor Allan Glassman) and imprisoned in a large cistern. As the Tetrarch (or Roman governor) of Judea, Herod is concerned by Jochanaan’s preaching and baptizing of the Hebrews he rules over. Although intrigued by Jochanaan’s prophetic message heralding the coming of the Messiah (whom Herod will also clash with soon enough - but that’s the subject of another opera: Jesus Christ Superstar) Herod’s wife, Herodius (the melodious Munich soprano Gabriele Schnaut) is enraged by the seer’s searing rebuke of their marriage as an incestuous abomination because she had previously been married to Herod’s brother.
One can view Jochanaan as a virtuous man or as the ur Comstock, a religious zealot fanatically attempting to impose his sexual repression on others. (You’d be perpetually irritated, too, if you wore camel’s hair clothing and ate locusts, as John the Baptist did in the Bible. I’m just praying…) Jochanaan’s puritanical spurning of the young, sexy Salome seems to inflame and turn her on - you know, you always want more of that which you can’t have and the ass - like the grass - is always greener on the other side. The work also has racial overtones, as Salome salivates over Jochanaan’s “alabaster” skin - although as a Jew from Judea, this seems extremely unlikely and ahistorical. As a man of the Mediterranean the color of the flesh Salome lusts after would probably have had an olive-colored or darker cast.
[MORE PLOT SPOILERS ABOUND!!!]
In any case, Jochanaan’s refusal of Salome’s sexual overtures enrages the pneumatic nubile nymph. Not being a Biblical scholar myself, this heretic assumed the Dance of the Seven Veils was meant to sexually arouse Jochanaan, who - depending on your point of view - was morally upright or just uptight, a sexually dysfunctional male. But this Talmudic scholar was wrong - it is danced for the pleasure of Herod, who lusts after his niece/stepdaughter. To induce her to perform the much vaunted veil dance the Roman high muckety-muck offers Salome anything she wants - although Herod (played in a sort of Mel Brooks-like way by Glassman) obviously didn’t read The Art of the Deal, because he doesn’t specify the terms of their verbal agreement prior to her boogieing.
And after her Biblical ballet and Salome’s, shall we say, grand unveiling, there is no turning back, so Herod is herded into honoring his bargain with and vow to the niece/stepdaughter he has lusted after. The steamy, scheming seductress has connived with her mother, Herod’s wife, Herodius, and John the Baptist’s fate is sealed. And thus is the origin, I presume, of bringing somebody something “on a silver platter.” What Salome proceeds to do with Jochanaan’s severed head is pretty perverse, and the racy Racette is quite risqué in her role. Call it: “Fifty Shades of Salome.”
But of course, Salome meets her own inevitable fate. Because, like you know, “bad” girls (that is, females who embrace their sexuality, use it as a form of power and - shudders! - even derive pleasure from sex) MUST be made to pay for the “sins” of their flesh.
In a “Dear Diary” entry, Dr. Joseph Goebbels dubbed Strauss a “decadent neurotic” - and who am I to disagree with the Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda? (Hey Joe - takes one to know one, although in your case I’d say a “decadent psychopath.”) Be that as it may, it would take another German speaker - paging Dr. Sigmund Freud! - to unravel all the sexual symbolism in this pretty hair-raising opera, which is no Sunday school outing and really not for the tykes.
In addition to the work’s eroticism, it’s also interesting to note that for the second show in a row, LA Opera is presenting a work set in the Middle East/Mediterranean region, the last being Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which has its own sexual undercurrent. If Seraglio centers on Turks, Salome has repeat references to Jews, Nazarenes and other regional denizens. Considering the decapitations by Isis, et al, in recent years, LA Opera’s selection of this highly overwrought production reflects our turbulent age, where people are quite literally losing their heads.
(According to Matthew 14, it was shortly after Jesus was informed of John the Baptist’s beheading that he miraculously fed the multitude with only five loaves of bread and two fish. As if to top this, his next act was to walk on water. So who knows - hopefully something good will come out of all this slaying, although I fear it will take a miracle.)
Strauss’ most famous piece of music is “Also sprach Zarathustra”, which Stanley Kubrick rather memorably used in 1968’s 2001: A Space Oddity. The music in Salome - which could have been called 30 A.D.: A Sex Oddity - likewise has “stupefying originality. In one stroke, polyphony, polyrhythms, bitonality and insistent counterpoint take charge,” writes James Conlon, who ably conducts LA Opera Orchestra, in Performances Magazine. (BTW, this program’s cover art was the result of a student art contest, won by Cal State Fullerton’s Marshall Dahlin, whose stark image wisely winks at Aubrey Beardley’s drawings that illustrate texts of Wilde’s play.)
Sometimes, when the curtain rises for an LA Opera production the audience spontaneously bursts into applause for the set, as it did when I saw Seraglio. But John Bury’s set design is mediocre and does little, if anything, to advance the story and ambiance. Parisian costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti’s garb captures and expresses the ancient era. Overall, Hamburg’s David Paul directs the proceedings well, although some of the performances tend towards the histrionic. However, given the ultra-religious subject matter, how could it be otherwise?
Salome will be performed Feb. 25, March 2 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays March 5 and 19 at 2:00 p.m., at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: https://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/salome/.
L.A.-based critic and film historian Ed Rampell is the presenter and programmer of “10 Films That Shook the World”, a cinematic centennial celebration of the Russian Revolution, premiering 7:00 p.m., Feb. 24 at the Los Angeles Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019.