Richard Strauss's opera Salome, secondarily derived from Oscar Wilde's play, is an interesting study in contrasts. While not atonal, there are time during which the dissonance of the music is nearly unbearable. At other times, most particularly, famously, and spectactularly in the infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils" the music is lush, late romantic in tone and tenor.
Because of operas like Salome and Elektra Strauss was branded a modernist; however works like Der Rosenkavalier and the symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) betray the late and lush romanticism of his work. Much like Schönberg's Verklarte Nacht but more subtle, more shaded, and more sensuous, Strauss found the heart of his work in the extension of the tradition handed down to him from the German Masters.
Why then Salome? Why this awful dissonance and this musical posturing? Why this subject matter? Well, to use another German term, it may have been part of the Zeitgeist. Aubrey Beardsley and his merry band of decadent Art Deco adherents had been busy redesigning the world of art, fashion, and architecture with a heightened sensuality and eroticism that could stumble over the border of pornography. Beardsley's famous representations of Salome are a case in point, highly stylized and most famously typified by the print of Salome about to kiss the Medusa-like severed head of John the Baptist.
This was the spirit of the time--an awakening, some might say, from the torpor and sleep of Victorian prudery and oppression. Others might describe it as a long slide into the slough of sin. The truth probably lay somewhere between the two. The excesses of Victorian prudery and oppression were well laid to rest, but they were only replaced by the excesses of the decadents for whom too much was never enough.
Enter stage right Salome. It is this dynamic tension, this awakening from slumber that is most carefully recounted in the tonality and dissonance of the work. The erotic and neurotic frenzy of the Salome who falls head-over-heels for John the Baptist to the point where she, deprived of the kisses of his lips that she describes as a "red band across a white tower," she contrives to find a way to finally embrace him and kiss him. Much Freudian can and has been made of all of this; but as Freud has largely been shown to be a product of his time and not particularly useful in understanding human psychology, what would be the point of it?
Strauss captures in the Opera some of the tension of the time. The transition between times is always full of tension and the pull of the sensual against the long-held repression of the Victorian time was enormous. The great gravity of Victorian propriety mostly held and thus, it was possible to be shocked by the performance of the opera in the earliest time. However, the music portrays the tension. The dissonance of the interior cry for liberation balanced against the need for control and repression of the desires. Thus, at the end of the opera, the final words and the last moments, while still belonging to Salome are initiated by Herod's order, "Kill her." And for a few moments of fading, final music there is a frenzy about Salome that recapitulates the action of the opera up until that point and brings it to a final quavering end. But, perhaps, a more reasonable understanding of the dissonance is the cognitive dissonance of the disruption caused in the name of art. Perhaps, one can see built into the treatment of the work, the doubts of Strauss himself both about the content of work and of the direction of society. But, that may be overreaching and without being able to read Strauss's own commentary on the work, if any, unsubstantiated.
This is an opera that is not easy to watch; but it is fascinating. One can almost track the argument within the music. The dance of the veils followed by a long scene in which Salome insists that Herod honor his oath and Herodias careens in wildly, shrieking harpy in the soprano's upper register. Contrast this with an earlier scene in which Salome attempts to seduce John the Baptist, called Iokanaan in the Opera, with songs that first reflect upon his body, "which is the whitest thing in the world" and his hair, "which is darker than the night without a moon in which the stars shine so bright." This aggressive female sexuality is the perceived threat. Herod, to use Browning's phrase, "gave commands/then all smiles stopped together." However, Salome is not an opera with a lot of smiles, even though there are somewhat comic scenes exploring the madness of Herod and the lunacy of his court.
Salome is an opera to be experienced with full knowledge of the context and with an understanding of all of the elements that make it what it is. A reading of Wilde's play of the same name might be informative, but a cursory understanding of the theory of the decadents, most particularly with a notion of the influence of Walter Pater (both Marius the Epicurean and Appreciations, which gave rise to the pervasive theory of beauty among the aesthetes.
The version I was able to view of this opera featured a lovely young woman who needed perhaps a little tempering around the edges of a rather hard voice. However, the opera has its difficulties in that it demands of a woman young enough to play Salome the richest of a voice tempered by long experience of performing operas. When one qualification or another is in doubt, it is often the voice that is given less consideration in order to make the sensuality of Salome come through. So it seems in this DVD; nevertheless, despite some momentary lapses (and there are few), the performance is electrifying and played with just the right neurotic, nay psychotic, energy. An interesting window into the art of a (thankfully) bygone era. We have enough battles of our own, thank you.