Salome, Salami & A Head - by Tom Savage

"Salome"by Richard Strauss from the play by Oscar Wilde German translation by Hedwig Lachmann Valery Gergiev, Conductor Jurgen Flimm, Production Santo Loquasto, Costume Designer Doug Varone, Choreographer Starring Karita Mattila (Salome), Bryn Terfel (Jochanan), Siegfried Jerusalem (Herod), Victoria Livengood (Herodias)

Review by Tom Savage


There are many modern and not-so-old versions of the Biblical story of Salome. There is an opera by Jules Massenet called Herodiade, which I have never seen. It has at least one beautiful aria, "Vision Fugitive" for Herod, bass-baritone, which I learned when I was studying classical singing in my teens. Since lesser known French operas, even major ones like Lakme, are rarely done in New York, who knows if we will ever get a chance to hear Herodiade all the way through anytime soon? There is a pallid Hollywood movie from the early postwar period starring Maureen O'Hara. One film historian describes this movie as "more salami than Salome." In the past year, New York City has seen two major productions, one on Broadway, the other at the Metropolitan Opera. The Broadway production was a staged reading of the play Salome by Oscar Wilde starring Marisa Tomei (Salome), Al Pacino (Herod), and David Straitharn (John The Baptist). Since this was a reading, the actors wore street clothes. Marisa Tomei did a dynamite dance of the seven veils that looked somewhat like a belly dance. The night I saw it, Pacino seemed to be playing a somewhat laid-back Herod. Either he was at a low energy level that night or he'd decided to portray Herod as someone deprived of energy by a life of debauchery. Straitham, who was excellent as John, had his head illuminated while the rest of his body was dark after the decapitation, obviously something difficult to stage, even with a full production.

This spring, Strauss' Salome was the biggest hit at the Metropolitan Opera. It was a new production since the opera hadn't been done there in at least twenty years. The characters were turned, costume-wise, into overbearing, modern-dressed rich people in tuxedos and fancy clothing. Most modern dress productions of classic operas are jarring and annoying. However, this one was not. As America becomes dominated by and New York City fills up with mobs of obnoxious, self-centered well-to-do people, it seemed appropriate that they should find themselves portrayed onstage in what is a fairly vile story, which ends with Salome on the floor cradling John The Baptist's decapitated head. If there was any of a certain kind of man-hating feminist in the audience, I'm sure they enjoyed this unforgettable scene. Toward the end of it, I began to experience extreme abdominal pains. This may have been coincidental. Several years ago I saw the Shakespeare play Cymbeline in a lovely production by the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. Toward the end of this play, someone's decapitated head is tossed around. I had no similar reaction at that time. Although this operatic Salome was a superb production, there were things about it that didn't work. At the beginning, some onstage lighting made it difficult to tell, from where I was sitting, which character was singing. Also, several silent men with wings, presumably angels, appeared toward the beginning. I don't think this is in the play. It seemed a ridiculous touch, if it was an addition. Bryn Terfel was excellent as Jochanan (John, to you). As he was in an elevator-like box underground throughout much of the opera, we didn't have to watch his decapitation. As the spoiled slut who just wants to seduce a man touched by "God", Karita Mattilla was superb. She's a beautiful, young, thin, blonde woman, which made her role easier to believe. She's a seductress who sees Jochanan as only another man in her endless, coercive chain of sexual desires. Jochanan sings over and over again that she's cursed. Where is the God of Love of his Jesus, his presumed guru, here? Since even Mary Magdalene overcame being a mere sexual object, why not give Salome her chance? Perhaps she is excluded from salvation beforehand because she is the product of incest? Since Jochanan rejects her, where has she to go but to wallow in the sensuality of her past and present conditioning as perhaps the most famous nymphomaniac of all time? Still, Jochanan might have kissed her and gotten it over with. He would have gotten over it. He seems like a prig, as many of Jesus' later followers have also proven to be. By Eastern standards, I think he might be called an apprentice saint at this point. Of course, he loses his head, which seems like an extreme punishment for not kissing a self-absorbed, demanding woman. Partly thanks to Mattila, this Salome seems very human in spite of the monstrousness of her actions. In order to get her way she danced for, and for a moment on top of her father Herod, a beautiful, sophisticated dance of the seven veils. Although, at this performance, Mattila started off a little awkwardly, she quickly gained ease and balance and probably did the best dancing here I will ever see from an opera singer. At the end of this dance, she was briefly naked onstage. Few opera singers of the past could have pulled this off or would have even attempt to do so. In the past generations or so, opera stars have learned how to act almost as well as the best stage actors. If they now begin to learn how to dance as well, could we see more baroque "opera ballets" revived? Oddly enough, in this instance, I found myself thinking about the so-called "free-love" of my generation's youth. What does the phrase mean now when virtually nothing is free anymore? As for Herod, would Donald Trump make a good one? He likes to fire people. He might get a spoiled landlord-king's kick out of executing his own daughter at the end.

A few weeks after seeing Salome, I saw another once often staged opera, Ponchielli's La Gioconda, in a convert version by the Opera Orchestra of New York. This great opera is full of wonderful music (the aria "Cielo e Mar" and the soprano singer "Suicidio") but is mostly known now for the orchestral interlude called "The Dance of the Hours" which was turned into an idiotic popular song thirty years ago which began "Hello muddah, hello fadduh, here I am in Camp Granada") At the end of this lovely dance music, the orchestra took a collective bow, which was as close as anyone came to dancing in this marvelously-sung concert of La Gioconda. As much of the opera takes place on the canals of Venice, perhaps it is difficult to stage believably now. I have seen few things more horrifyingly believable in staged opera than Mattila's caressing and adoration of Jochanan's detached head at the end of this production of Strauss' Salome. This opera by Richard Strauss, his second, made him famous worldwide. It's music is superb, as is that in nearly all of Strauss' 16 operas. As far as I could tell, this being my first encounter with Salome on her St. John's head day, the conducting by Valery Gergiev, was first-rate, as it usually is with him. I wonder how many of the Metropolitan Opera's patrons in the expensive orchestra seats got what seemed to me to be the point of the updated staging, however.