by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The Metropolitan Opera’s October 11, 2008 performance of Richard Strauss’s Salomé was originally shown live in movie theatres (the Met’s latest gimmick to boost the audiences for opera in general and their company in particular) and then shown later on the national PBS network and still later on the San Diego outlet, KPBS, which as usual ghettoizes cultural programming either to the wee hours of the morning or (in this case) to Sunday at noon. I thought Charles would be interested in this because he’s a great devotée of Oscar Wilde, a British author of Irish descent who wrote the play Salomé in French (which I’ve read in Lord Alfred Douglas’s English translation), on which Hedwig Lachmann based her German-language libretto which Strauss set as an opera (got that? I know it’s confusing).
John Culshaw, who produced one of the most famous audio recordings of Salomé — the 1961 Vienna Philharmonic performance with Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Georg Solti conducting — wrote in his book Putting the Record Straight, “I have always believed that Salomé should be played for what it is — a piece of sensual grand Guignol. It has no catharsis. It would be even more depraved than it is had Strauss been able to make a noble figure out of John the Baptist, but he emerges as a rather tiresome creature, who does not even attempt to outwit his seductress.” There are a lot of aspects of this production about which I could nit-pick: designer Jürgen Flimm decided to do it in modern dress, the Herod of Kim Begley (a boy named Kim) comes off looking like a low-level bureaucrat in a cream-colored suit rather than a man who, though subject to the ultimate authority of Rome, is mostly an absolute dictator of his little kingdom, and the Salomé, Karita Mattila, looks appropriately depraved but is all too obviously well beyond her teen years and comes off more like a world-weary and all too experienced street hooker rather than the sick little prick-tease, fascinated with her own sexuality and just how far she can push it to get men to do what she wants, that Wilde wrote.
Also, I must say I’d imagined the famous Dance of the Seven Veils with Salomé performing solo, with just Herod, Herodias and a few of the courtiers looking on, whereas Flimm stages it as a Weimar-era cabaret number with Mattila beginning it in a Dietrichesque male-style suit and flirting with a retinue of chorus boys as Strauss’s music (which has been criticized as cheap and tawdry but which seems to me to reflect the cheap, tawdry situation perfectly; it’s Salomé’s cheapness and tawdriness, not Strauss’s) winds on, with Mattila ultimately doffing her jacket and shirt with her back to the audience but, when she turns around, strategically thrusting up her arms to conceal her breasts from public view. (I’ve long dreamed of a production in which the soprano will not only strip totally naked but, at the climax — in both senses of the word — of her final scene will stick the severed end of John the Baptist’s head against her crotch and masturbate with it. Of course, this would require a sufficiently good-looking soprano that you’d want to see her naked; as radiant as her audio-only recording of this opera was, Montserrat Caballé need not have applied!)
But whatever might have been wrong with his production — including the rather odd appearance of an almost-naked Black man who is the executioner of John the Baptist (and who is the only member of the dramatis personae clad in period costume — which in this modern-dress context only makes him look like he was on his way to a costume party and got lost) and who also approaches Salomé with sword raised at the end (he’s obviously carrying out Herod’s order to kill her but we don’t see him do so, even within the self-evident limits of stage fakery; both Charles and I noticed immediately that they weren’t having two members of Herod’s guard crush Salomé between their shields, the exit Wilde specified for her) — at least Flimm got the overall tone right. He’s aware that Salomé has no catharsis and he’s not going even to hint at one — and in Mattila he’s got a singer who delivers the vocal goods and plays Salomé as the bored psychopath Wilde wrote.
Ildikó Komlósi matches her as an implacable, politically ambitious Herodias, willing to suborn her husband’s lust for her daughter to achieve a political end (the execution of John the Baptist) she wants and he doesn’t. Juha Uusitalo is O.K. as John — it’s really a pretty nothing role — and though I wish opera producers would go for the extra cachet (and expense) of casting Herod as the real heldentenor part Strauss wrote, Begley is at least better than the character tenors we usually get — and Joseph Kaiser’s Narraboth (the young soldier who admires Salomé and kills himself for her, to which she responds by kicking his dead body) is as blank as he needs to be for the character’s naïveté to be credible.
It’s also amusing that despite all the cutting Lachmann had to do to get the play down to a tolerable length for an opera, and the awkwardness of having to translate from Wilde’s schoolboy French to singable German, some of Wilde’s witticisms still come through — and certainly his cynicism towards organized religion and all the Victorian virtues is evident, which is why John the Baptist (“Jokanaan,” as he’s called here, pronounced “yo-KAHN-uh-ahn”) comes off as a holy idiot instead of a righteous martyr. Charles noted Strauss’s debt to Wagner early on — in his early years Strauss was actually jokingly called “Richard the Second,” and during the rehearsals for his first opera Guntram, when he criticized the sloppy way the orchestra was playing a particular passage, one of the musicians told him, “Nothing personal, Herr Strauss. We don’t get that part right in Tristan either.”
It’s interesting that the music for Jokanaan is more “Wagnerian” than any other part of the score — Strauss apparently got the idea that Siegfried-like French horn calls and sonorous Wagner-tuba parts would convey that, if not exactly a sympathetic character, this guy is supposed to be at least a marginally better specimen of humanity than anyone else in the piece. The Met Salomé was a good example of a modern opera production that might have altered the original letter of the piece (though it was a bit silly when Herod lamented the heaviness of his crown — and he wasn’t wearing one) but was at least faithful to its spirit, even though its spirit is a very cynical view of human psychology, spirituality and sexuality (not that I mind that!).