Lyric Opera of Chicago

Opera-goers thought that they had seen the ultimate in vile decadence when they encountered Richard Strauss’s Salome in its premiere at the Dresden court theater. The current Lyric production, which opened on November 25, is as vile and decadent as they come, and the composer would doubtless have approved.

The Salome of Strauss’s opera was first conceived by Oscar Wilde at the end of the 19th century. Before then, she had had only a small role in the story of Herod and John the Baptist in the gospels of Mark and Matthew and in the histories of the hellenized Jew, Flavius Josephus. The story from the Bible has the corrupt Herodias seeking a way to silence John the Baptist’s criticism of her adulterous marriage to King Herod Antipas. John, like any good fire-in-the-belly prophet of Jewish tradition, won’t be quieted by mere threats; Herodias must have him executed. But Herod is afraid to order the execution of a holy man, so Herodias manipulates him by encouraging his incipient lust for her daughter Salome (who, because Herodias is Herod’s niece, is his stepdaughter, niece, and grandniece all at once). Urged on by her mother, Salome agrees to dance for the lascivious Herod, and in exchange secures an unconditional promise of any reward she desires. After the dance, Herod discovers that the reward is to be John the Baptist’s head.

This is a nasty enough little family drama, but it was not sufficiently spicy for the jaded Oscar Wilde. In order to make the tale truly bizarre and revolting, instead of merely decadent and bloody, Wilde changed the emphasis of the action. Salome becomes the motivating force; her mother becomes more or less an onlooker. The Jewish princess conceives an unnatural passion for the rude figure of the prophet, but is firmly rebuffed. Piqued, she dances for Herod–against the wishes of her mother. As in the biblical tale, she demands as payment the severed head of the holy man on a silver platter, to her mother’s delight.

The psychodrama that emerged from the perfervid imagination of Wilde was a bit strong for the stomachs of the censors and much of the public of his day. It was banned in Britain and had scant success in France, where Wilde might have looked for some acclaim, especially since the play was originally written in French. (It was translated into English by his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father later sent Wilde to jail in a celebrated court case.)

The play was most successful in imperial Germany, and Strauss was inspired to set it to music after he saw it in Berlin. Dresden was chosen for the opera’s premiere, as it was thought that the Saxon censors would be kinder than their Prussian brethren.

There was no librettist, properly speaking, as the text is basically a German translation, though the text was slightly abridged and some characters were eliminated. Of all of Strauss’s great contributions to the operatic stage, Salome is the only one that was accomplished without Strauss’s principal collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The opera also marks the emergence of Strauss from the Wagnerian cocoon that had constrained him in his two earlier operas, Guntram and Feueresnot.

Elektra, Strauss’s other portrayal of family intrigue and murder, is more esteemed today in Germany than Salome, but the Jewish princess is generally preferred to the Greek in Britain and America. Maria Ewing’s stunning portrayal of the nymphet Salome should secure that preference in Chicago. At times sensuous, teasing, autistic, and revolting, her character was everything the composer or playwright could have imagined. Furthermore, Ewing was at least equal to the vocal challenges of the role, and at times her singing was superb–a great rarity in this role, which is usually either well sung and poorly acted, or vice versa. If she lacks the battleship punch of a Wagnerian soprano, she still has the power to fill the house–without the battleship physique of a Wagnerian.

Baritone Siegmund Nimsgern seemed uncomfortable in his prison pallor and loincloth, but sang the role of Jochanaan with a conviction reminiscent of his performance as the tortured Amfortas in the 1986 performances of Parsifal. Tenor James King’s noble timbre made his Herod almost sympathetic at times, in contrast with the conventional sniveling whiner usually seen in this role. It was an unusual but pleasing interpretation.

Herodias is one of those thankless roles found in the operatic repertory that does not permit an artist a lot of scope either vocally or dramatically. Removed by Wilde from her central position, she must sit on the sidelines, nagging her husband and scolding her daughter. Brigitte Fassbaender looked the role of the queen and sang her fairly well, but sometimes seemed at loose ends in her stage actions. Narraboth, who kills himself when he is ignored by Salome, was admirably sung and acted by Franco Farina. Those in the roles of the five Jews sang their difficult ensemble with precision.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin managed the forces of the Lyric orchestra with flair during the 95-minute course of this one-act show. The sets, designed by John Bury, are in the style of the Art Nouveau artist Gustav Klimt, and are appropriate to the period in which Strauss composed the work and to the atmosphere it projects. Peter Hall and Jeannette Aster directed smoothly; this show was not plagued by the problems that have sometimes beset Hall’s other attempts to showcase his wife, Ms. Ewing.

Strauss or Wilde would have loved this production, which packs an emotional wallop more shocking than a mad-slasher film. This Salome is real horror.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.