"A viper in my bosom." That is how Kaiser Wilhelm II described Richard Strauss, following the 1905 premiere of the shocking, bloody opera Salome. In 1909, he offended the ears of English monarch George V with the slashing score of Elektra. Upon hearing a 'selection of themes' played by the Buckingham Palace band, the King sent out his major-domo with instructions that the music was "never to be repeated."
Fraught with tension, atonality, brilliant orchestral effects and bloody climaxes, Salome and her sister Elektra are the most notorious among Strauss's 15 operas. These two one-act dramas each laid the musical framework for much of the 20th century, particularly the horror-movie scores of Hollywood composers like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), John Williams (Jaws) and Wendy Carlos (The Shining).
Strauss used atonal harmonies, minor-key chords and dark, menacing figures in the woodwinds to create an atmosphere of depravity, decay and dread. Salome is all orchestral color and faux-Oriental shimmer, until Jokaanan (John the Baptist) gets decapitated. His head is then served to the title character as a reward for the Dance of the Seven Veils.
Elektra is built from heavy, monolithic chords with slithering strings and winds that preface the matricidal revenge of Elektra's axe-wieding brother Orestes. Composers in Hollywood took inspiration from Strauss, culminating in Bernard Hermann's use of shrieking violins in Psycho as Janet Leigh is murdered. The idea was borrowed from Salome, where scraped double basses evoke the sawing noises as the prophet Jokaanan (literally) loses his head.
Two excellent recordings made by Birgit Nilsson, Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic provide the best opportunity to hear these "shock operas" in all their glory. Each set was recently remastered and reissued as part of Decca's mid-priced The Originals series, and they sound (nearly) as good as the original vinyl. Nilsson is the ideal singer for both operas.
In Salome it is no insult to say that she is surrounded by an appropriate freak-show cast, featuring the twisted Herod of Gerhard Stolze. The Elektra features a demented performance by Regina Resnik as the heroine's mother, Klytaemnestra.
Both were recorded using the much-ballyhooed "Sonicstage" stereo technique developed by John Culshaw for the famous Decca recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle. They are must-haves for Strauss aficionadoes and horror fans alike.
Georg Solti and producer John Culshaw. Photo © Decca.