DALLAS ‒ For many musicologists, the premiere of Salome in Dresden in 1905 was a turning point in the history of music. Alex Ross makes the case most eloquently, in his iconic book The Rest is Noise, that this opera is the true beginning of 20th-century music, influencing Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and many others besides. Ross returned to the subject even more fervently in a recent New Yorker article titled “The Endless, Grisly Fascination of Richard Strauss’ Salome” (August 2019). Indeed, it was and still is a most remarkable score, and Fabio Luisi and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra gave us a semi-staged version in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center that, as heard on Feb. 2, was as exciting and as horrifying as Strauss intended it to be.
It is no longer a novelty for orchestras to be presenting full-length operas and, in fact, there are many operas that are perfectly suited to this kind of presentation. Salome is one of them. There are only a handful of major roles, not much action, and appreciation of the drama does not require elaborate sets and costumes. What is more, with the orchestra onstage one gets a far better idea of how the various instruments are used. For example, who knew that there is an organ in Salome? (For the record, I did, but then I have a full score of the opera.) But in this performance one could clearly see the organist high up in his loft doing his stuff at several key moments in the score. One could also see something else that is not normally visible to the audience when the orchestra is down in the pit: the famous double bass solo Strauss wrote for the offstage moment when Jokanaan is beheaded. Nicolas Tsolainos played it just as Strauss wrote it, with a sforzando B flat high up on the G string, with the string pinched between the fingers instead of pressed against the fingerboard to give an unearthly and frightening rasping sound. For the record, Strauss borrowed this effect from Berlioz; but Strauss used it in a perfect spot. On the other hand, Strauss meant the effect to simulate Salome’s cries of horror ‒ not Jokanaan’s.
In the Dallas performance, the staging was done by Alberto Triola, a longtime colleague of conductor Luisi. In fact, they share the artistic directorship of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, in south eastern Italy. He opted for a fairly large playing area extending the full width of the stage in front of the orchestra, with several plinths used as chairs and, at one point, for Salome to stand on. The major players wore modern formal dress with Salome herself in a shiny silver evening gown. While Jokanaan, John the Baptist, spends most of the opera locked underground in a cistern, this was merely suggested by having him sing from the choir loft. Triola also dispensed with props almost entirely. Wine is much talked about in the text but nary a single glass ever appears, and the severed head of Jokanaan turns out to be a silver ball. Nor does Salome shed any veils in her famous dance – rather, she plays with decorative scarves. Perhaps surprisingly, the absence of realistic props didn’t hamper one’s suspension of disbelief in the slightest. The power and presence of the orchestra and the excellence of the singers kept this listener riveted from beginning to end.
Salome is not only the title character but she is also on stage for the entire 90 minutes of the opera. But who is this perverted young woman? She appears in the New Testament not by name but as “the daughter of Herodias.” Her story is told in almost the same details in both Mark (6:21-28) and in Matthew (14:6-11). This Salome is not to be confused with the Salome who was a follower of Jesus and who witnessed the crucifixion (Mark 15:40). In modern times it was Oscar Wilde who took the original Biblical account, embellished it, and produced it as a highly controversial one-act play in 1891. Strauss read Wilde’s play and fashioned his own libretto from it.
On the face of it, Salome is a young girl with raging hormones and completely lacking in moral guidelines who pursues her desires to the depths of perversion. But perhaps there is more to it than that. The composer has told us that “Anyone who has been to the Orient and has observed the decorum of its women will appreciate that Salome should be played as a chaste virgin, an oriental princess, with but the most simplified gestures, if her shipwreck on encountering the miracle of a brave new world is to arouse compassion and not horror and disgust.”
In this view, the innocent young Salome is simply reacting against her oppressive mother and stepfather, and in so doing loses all sense of right and wrong. Perhaps, but in the opera, Salome is completely oblivious to anything Jokanaan actually says. He repeatedly attacks Salome’s mother for marrying her husband’s brother.
Salome pays no attention to the prophet’s ravings about the coming of the Messiah, nor does she take any notice of the Jews who argue among themselves about the meaning of what he is saying. Salome is not interested in his religious beliefs but in his body, his hair, and his lips. She is physically smitten by the man and will not rest until she has possessed him.
It remains a puzzle for anyone attempting to stage the opera or to portray Salome. In Dallas, stage director Triola and Lithuanian soprano Aušrine Stundyte seemed to find a nearly ideal representation. To be sure, they set aside the composer’s suggestion that she be played as a “chaste virgin” but did not portray her as a sex kitten either. She is clearly driven by sexual desire but in an almost naïve, idealistic way. There is much talk about the moon in Salome. Is it a reflection of Salome? Is it a cosmic force controlling human lives? Perhaps both – and more. For Triola, it is at least in part the object of Salome’s desires, and in the end she succeeds in capturing it (i.e., Jokanaan’s severed head revealed to be a silver ball).
Stundyte is a much-experienced Salome who recently made her Vienna debut in the role. While Strauss originally conceived the part as requiring an Isolde voice, over the years he modified his view. He changed his mind partly because Isolde voices often came in matronly bodies, and this was not at all what he imagined Salome should look like. In fact, he even worked out a reduced orchestration so that lyric sopranos could manage the role. Stundyte is very much an attractive lyric soprano, and in Dallas she demonstrated that she could hold her own even against the original orchestration.
And she paced herself perfectly. Only at the very end of the opera did she unleash full voice, and it was thrilling. Vocally, Stundyte was wonderful as Salome, but dramatically too she was totally convincing. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” – with scarves instead of veils – managed to be both sensual and abstract, and the rhythm and tempo of her gestures were perfectly in synch with what the orchestra was playing.
Tenor Herwig Pecoraro was excellent as Herod, and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, equally fine as Herodias. Baritone Mark Delavan was appropriately sonorous and mesmerizing as Jokanaan. Tenor Allan Glassman made an intense and powerful First Jew.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra played magnificently under Luisi’s experienced hands. He brought out details in the score this listener had never noticed before and managed both the lyrical episodes and the searing dramatic ones with mastery. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” was as exciting as one could hope to hear it. One quibble: At the great climax near the end – an unbelievably dissonant chord – Luisi seemed deliberately to underplay it. Surely it was meant to be shocking in the extreme.
And who knew that there was humor in Salome? After one of Jokanaan’s outbursts Salome comments, “He is truly dreadful!” As soon as the translation appeared on the surtitle screen, the audience burst into laughter.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org) and www.myscena.org.