John the Baptist v. Salomé

The Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for today (Year B, Proper 10 (15)) is Mark 6:14-29, which is the story of how John the Baptist comes to be beheaded by King Herod, at the behest of Herod’s stepdaughter (called Herodias in the gospel, but known in legend as Salomé, daughter of Herod’s wife Herodias).

This story was famously turned into a scandalous play, Salomé, in French by Oscar Wilde in 1894, subsequently translated into English by Wilde’s boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas. Richard Strauss then created an opera based on a German translation of Wilde’s original French play and first performed in 1905. The opera caused an equal sensation not only for it’s subject matter but for the extraordinarily chromatic and sensuous music. (I once read a comment to the effect that if the stage action fully replicated what was going on in the orchestra, the vice squad would close down the performance.)

It was interesting to compare the biblical version of the story with Wilde’s elaboration. The general outline is the same: Herod coaxes Salomé to dance for him, and in return she extracts an oath that he will grant her any wish. Upon the completion of the dance, she demands for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. In the Bible, the request for the John’s head is prompted by Salomé’s mother Herodias. In the Wilde play and the Strauss opera, Salomé becomes enamored of John the Baptist, and when he rejects her advances, she becomes sexually obsessed with him. The final twenty-minute scene of the opera consists of Salomé making caressing and finally kissing John’s severed head. This act repulses Herod, who commands the soldiers to kill Salomé.

No wonder the good folks of 1894 and 1905 were shocked. Oddly enough, however, Salomé is practically my first memory of opera, listening in the early ’60s to a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast. At this point, I have no idea who the singers might have been. But the story made an impact. (What was my mother thinking, letting me listen to such a thing?)

Salomé continues to be one of my favorite operas. The title character needs the body and presence of a sixteen-year-old and the dramatic soprano voice of a Valkyrie to carry over Strauss’s enormous orchestrations. The famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” is a high-end striptease. Unfortunately, usually the two characteristics don’t meet up in the same person. The famous Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson had the voice, but the aspect of her oversize Nordic hausfrau required more than minimal willing suspension of disbelief. Most recently at the Met the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila “took it all off,” both looking and sounding great too. The American Catherine Malfitano made a success of the role on stage, in recording and DVD.

I’ve lately been listening to a Chandos recording from the late ’90s featuring the Royal Danish Opera and the soprano Inge Nielsen. No, she’s not a household name, but she’s got the goods when it comes to Salomé. Her voice is not heroic, but it cuts like a laser over the top of the orchestra. She is also able to act with her voice. She’s convincing as the Jewish princess.

So if you want an over the top evening of entertainment, find a copy of the DVD with Catherine Malfitano (conducted by former Cleveland Orchestra director Christoph von Dohnanhi), get the popcorn or meatballs and have a blast. Then go for a brisk walk when it’s over.

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