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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Richard Strauss Project: Salome

Richard Strauss' shocking opera still makes heads roll.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Depravity: Salome (Camilla Nylund) with the head of Jokanaan (Alan Held)
at the climax of Salome at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.
Photo by  Dominic M. Mercier © 2014 Opera Philadelphia/The Philadelphia Orchestra
When Richard Strauss unveiled Salome in  1905,  he was already a leading light among German composers and conductors. He was born in Bavaria, and his father Franz was =the principal horn player at the first Bayreuth performances of Wagner's Ring.

Strauss the younger (he is no relation to the Austrian family of waltz and operetta composers) rose to fame quickly and at a young age. He made his first splash with tone poems like Don Juan (1888), Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche and Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), works which have never left the core repertory of major orchestras. However, with two box office failures, success in the field of opera had proved elusive.

That all changed when the composer saw the Oscar Wilde play Salomé. Wilde's play blamed  the prophet's murder on Salomé, the nymphet stepdaughter of Herod, the Tetrarch (ruler) of Judea. The text (which Strauss encountered in a German translation by Hedwig Lachmann) took the Gospel story of John's death, and eroticized the relationship between Salome (the accent is removed in German)  and Jokaanan, fleshing out the princess as a young girl driven by lust, first for sex and later, in the depraved finale, for the "mystery of death."

Strauss quickly realized that this play would work as an opera. He obtained the rights to Lachmnann's libretto, setting and editing the text himself. The story allowed him to unleash twenty-five years of compositional experience and the full powers of orchestration on the lurid story. Armed with a 120-piece orchestra and requiring a soprano who could sing like "a 16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde", he brought all of his powers to bear in creating an opera that still shocks audiences today.

Salome opens with an upward trill of the clarinet and the unrolling of a lush carpet of strings. The setting is the court of Herod, with Jokaanan imprisoned in a cistern downstage. Salome leaves the banquet and asks the captain of the guards, Narraboth about the prisoner. She orders him brought forth and rhapsodizes on the blackness of his hair, the whiteness of his skin and the redness of his mouth. The orchestra quivers and slithers like a living thing, setting the stage for the horror to come.

That comes with the entrance of Herod and Herodias, who herself has been vilified by Jokaanan. At Herod's urging, Salome consents to dance for her stepfather, on the condition that she be given anything she wants. The Dance of the Seven Veils follows, a shocking strip-tease, depending on the soprano in the production. Finished, Salome demands her fee: the head of Jokanaan on a silver platter. Horrified, Herod tries to bargain, but eventually relents. Salome sings her final aria to her bloody prize, and Herod, disgusted, orders her to be killed as the curtain falls.

Whew. Strauss knew he was rattling cages with this opera. Before the opera's premiere, soprano Wilhelmina Schröder-Devient refused to perform the Dance, saying she was a "decent woman." (This set the precedent for singers having a ballet dancer perform the terpsichore.) Audiences were stunned at this bloody show. Strauss used the proceeds from Salome to buy a villa in the town of Garmisch, which remained his home for the rest of his life. More importantly, his reputation as Germany's premiere opera composer was made.

The Recordings: 
With recordings of Salome you have two choices. One, is to go with the soprano whose voice thrills you to bits or tickles your fancy. The other is to pick the recording by the star conductor you really like to listen to. These three choices have both qualities in almost equal proportion.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca 1962)
This classic Decca Sonicstage recording features the mega-sized soprano of Birgit Nilsson in the title role, the driving conducting of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Count on the expert production skills of John Culshaw making the opera as graphic as possible.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI/WBC 1978)
If Solti pushes the score relentlessly forward, Karajan caresses and seduces using the warm timbre of the Vienna Philharmonic to quease-inducing effect. His Salome is the perfectly cast Hildegard Behrens in the role that made the German soprano a star.

Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG 1991)
Cheryl Studer may seem like an oddball choice for the role of a "sixteen-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde" but she is well coached and well couched in the lush sound of this Berlin orchestra. This was the first of a series of successful Strauss recordings by Mr. Sinopoli, an Italian surgeon who became a much-recorded conductor. His hot streak ended with his untimely death--on the podium while conducting Aida.

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