Lust, murder, treachery, betrayal and tragedy are the usual components of opera, but they hardly prepare one for what Richard Strass’s Salome offers. Decadence, perversion, lust, necrophilia and a touch of religion are included but that is a shorthand and inadequate description of what you get from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2008 production directed by Jurgen Flimm.
The story begins in the Bible. King Herod of Judea marries his brother’s wife Herodias. John the Baptist told him that it was unlawful to do that. Herodias did not like that advice and wanted to eliminate John, but she could not do it by herself and Herod was too scared to help her. Herodias had a daughter by her first husband, referred to only as a damsel in the Bible, who performed one hell of a dance for Herod on his birthday, such that he offered her whatever she wanted. Her mother told her to ask for John’s head and Herod reluctantly ordered the beheading. John’s head was delivered to the “damsel” (Semele, of course), who gave it to her mother.
That summary is gory enough, but it is barely the beginning of what Richard Strauss (based on Oscar Wilde’s play) delivered to a shocked world in Dresden in 1905. And you should see what Jurgen Flimm does.
Flimm takes all the depravity, lust and necrophilia and accentuates it to the nth degree. He has the cast with which to shock us with this stunning production that leaves one breathless. Soprano Karita Mattila has immense vocal prowess but also acting and dancing ability to give us a frightful Salome. She is attracted to the holy and imprisoned John the Baptist (Jochanaan in the opera) and wants to kiss him. He rebuffs her.
King Herod lusts after her and she cannot stand him. Mattila may not be the young woman that we may imagine Salome being, but her dancing displays a sexual magnetism sufficient to drive Herod crazy. It does and he is willing to give her half his kingdom. All she wants is John’s head.
When she gets John’s severed head, she kisses him on the lips and indeed makes love to him. She rolls on the ground, kissing it and finally releases it, her face bloodied, in what looks like an orgasmic release following coitus.
Tenor Kim Begley sings the lascivious and frightened King Herod whose lust deprives him of any morality and gets rid of his fear as he orders the beheading of the holy man. A marvelous performance.
Bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo gives a superb performance as John and represents faith, morality, and grace in the swamp of depravity. Mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi sings Herodias who has reason to hate John and cause to rejoice when he is killed.
Flimm and Set and Costume Designer Santo Loquasto set the opera in the present with turbans and other indicia that it takes place in the Middle East. The glass and chrome set, a terrace with the blue sky above, bespeaks wealth and power. The officers are smartly dressed, the guests are in formal attire and Salome’s slinky dress is meant to and does act as a sexual magnet. Doug Varone’s expert choreography does the rest.
The essential depravity of the opera is there, of course, but Flimm bring it to new heights (depths?) in this masterful production which expands and heightens the ingredients that Strauss following Oscar Wilde put in it.
The opera requires a large orchestra for its complex and dramatic score. Conductor Patrick Summers and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra gave an outstanding performance and indeed made the music one of the central elements of the opera.
Opera it its best.
The 2008 telecast of Salome by Richard Strauss was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera on November 10, 2020. For more information visit: www.metoper.org