Considered scandalous when it premiered in 1905, and banned for years in the U.S. and elsewhere, Strauss’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play is among the most important musical works of the 20th century. Mahler, who attended the 1906 premiere along with Puccini, Zemlinsky, and Schoenberg, praised the piece as “one of the greatest masterworks of our time.” This fast-paced, one-act opera is known as much for its revolutionary use of large-scale orchestra and virtuosic singers as it is for its graphic depiction of this deeply psychological tale. At the core of this erotically-charged opera set in biblical times exists a tangled and disturbed triangle: the persecuted John the Baptist, a lecherous King Herod, and the monarch’s pathologically seductive stepdaughter, Salome, who eventually demands the head of the imprisoned prophet on a silver platter. This virtuosic score of massive proportions culminates with the famous and controversial “Dance of the Seven Veils,” as well as an explicit scene with the beheaded prisoner.
Time: Circa A.D. 30
Place: The Great Terrace of Herod's Palace on the Sea of Gaiilee
Opera in One Act
Herod, King of Judea, is feasting with his court in the palace of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. From the terrace, Narraboth, the Captain of the Guard, gazes at the King's beautiful stepdaughter, Salome, with whom he is in love, and ignores the warnings of the Page, who loves and admires him. Salome comes out to look at the moonlight and to escape the noise and vulgarity of the banquet. She hears the voice of Jochanaan (John the Baptist), imprisoned by Herod in a cistern beneath the terrace. He is announcing the coming of the Messiah. Fascinated, she asks to see him and when the guards refuse for fear of disobeying the King’s orders, she persuades Narraboth to do as she asks.
The Prophet emerges and denounces Herod and his wife Herodias, Salome’s mother, who has married her murdered husband’s brother. Salome is filled with desire for him. When he tells her to leave everything to seek the Son of Man, she only answers, “Who is he, the Son of Man? Is he as beautiful as thou art?” and sings ecstatically of his beauty and her desire to kiss his mouth. Narraboth, unable to bear it, kills himself, but she barely notices that he took his life. Jochanaan curses Salome when he realizes that she is the daughter of Herodias and descends once more into his dungeon. Herod comes out of the palace. His lust for Salome provokes a quarrel with Herodias who demands the death of Jochanaan for his insults to her. But Herod holds him in awe, considering him to be a holy man, and the Jews come forward to dispute his teachings.
In need of a diversion, Herod begs Salome to dance. At first unwilling, she consents when Herod promises her anything she desires. The dance finished, she throws herself on the floor in front of Herod and demands the head of Jochanaan. His desire for her gives way to abhorrence, but he agrees at last. From the cistern, the executioner hands up the head on a silver platter and she seizes it in a frenzy of joy.
He who has despised her love must now accept it, she who had craved for him can sate herself in kissing his mouth as longs as she pleases. Sick with horror, King Herod shouts to the guards to kill her, and she is crushed to death beneath their shields.