Well, that was something.
A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a history of 20th century classical music. (I wrote about the book last year, in this post.) I recall being a bit surprised that the book opened not with that usual-for-this-subject anecdote about the 1913 premier of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but with a 1906 performance of Salome. I've never listened to much of Strauss's music and did not think of him as a modernist bomb-thrower. But Salome preceded The Rite by seven years. And, as I just discovered, it is explosive.
I had thought, on finishing the Ross book, that I would try to work my way through at least some of the major works that he discusses and I had not heard, or not really heard. I'm just now getting around to following up on that. Conveniently, I had come into a recording of Salome not long before, in what I have been calling the Fr. Dorrell trove--several hundred classical LPs left behind when an elderly priest died a few years ago. It's an RCA Red Seal recording from the late '60s, with Montserrat Caballé as Salome and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, and it's one of those wonderful boxed sets of the great age of the LP, with a big handsome booklet containing the libretto and various other material. I put the first disk on and settled into a chair with the libretto.
Never mind the dates: Alex Ross was right to put this opera at the head of the "let's shake things up" line of early 20th century works. It is a far more sensational composition than the Rite, both musically and thematically. A hundred and twenty years later, it still has some power to shock (which I suppose means I am not as thoroughly jaded as I thought).
I had not gotten very far before I thought This libretto was written by a gay man. And sure enough: it's from a play by Oscar Wilde, written before his fall.
He takes quite a few liberties with the biblical text. In the New Testament story, the young and beautiful Salome is the stepdaughter of Herod and daughter of Herod's wife Herodias, and is used by the latter to get rid of John the Baptist. In his eyes the marriage is illicit and immoral, and, being John the Baptist, he says so much too forthrightly for Herodias's liking. Salome dances for Herod, reducing him, apparently, to a state of lustful helplessness such that he swears to give her anything she asks. I can't help figuring he had something more in mind, the dance being over at that point. Herodias prompts Salome to ask for the head of the Baptist, and Herod, trapped by his promise, has to give it to her.
Not so as Wilde tells the story. In his version, it is Salome who is consumed with lust, and lust with an edge of perversion. She first appears without the other two, demanding of the jailer that she be allowed to see the prophet, and, when the jailer reluctantly obeys her, begins to slaver over the Baptist in very lurid terms:
I am amorous of thy body!
Thy body is white like the lilies of a field
that the mower hath never mowed.
Thy body is like the snows of Judea...
...[eight or ten more lines in this vein]...
Suffer me to touch thy body.
See what I mean? John of course rebuffs and denounces her vigorously, which only adds the spice of anger to her weird eroticism. She disparages his body and has a rhapsody over his hair. Eventually she settles, obsessively, on his mouth, determined to kiss him, and then, when he will have nothing to do with her (beyond telling her to repent), to take revenge on him .
As Wilde retells the story, Herod is Salome's tool, very deliberately led into a trap by her, and while Herodias approves of what her daughter is doing, she's really just a bystander. And in the end Salome gets her wish, after a fashion. Whatever one may think of Wilde's version, it is dramatically effective.
But this is an opera. What about the music? I'm afraid I was too busy following the libretto word for word to really get the music. The opera is in German, and the libretto in this package includes the German and a line-by-line English translation. I have just enough of a feel for German to pay attention to it, but not to understand much of it, and so was constantly switching back and forth between the two texts, trying to keep up with both. I only have a general impression of the music: vivid, discordant, colorful, wildly varied. A few passages did jump out at me: for instance, the moments when Herod has a sense of foreboding, imagining a great wind and "the beating of vast wings." I think I'll like it when I listen to it again. If "like" is the right word.
I think the recording is great, by the way. Sonically it's wonderful, and I see a lot of five-star reviews on Amazon.