The online opera guide to SALOME
Richard Strauss first saw the theater play “Salome” in 1902 in a production by Max Reinhard, and three years later created for the first time an expressionist sound world that seemed to break with everything previously known. Despite the now thirteen years that had passed since the play’s first performance, the piece, set to music as an opera, met with open hostility from traditionalists. But the first performance in Dresden became a sensation and “Salome” began its triumphal march around the world.
Overview and quick access
♪ Scene I (Banquet-Scene)
♪ Scene II (Salome / Jochanaan – Scene)
♪ Scene III (Salome / Jochanaan – Scene)
♪ Scene IV (Dance of 7 veils, Salome Death – Scene)
♪ Ah, du wolltest mich nicht Deinen Mund küssen lassen (Final Scene)
Roles and Synopsis
Richard Strauss, based on the novel of the same name by Oscar Wilde.
The main roles
Herod, tetrarch of Judea (tenor) - Herodias, wife of the tetrarch (mezzo-soprano) - Salome, daughter of Herodias (soprano) - Jochanaan, the prophet John the Baptist (baritone) - Narraboth, captain of the guard (tenor)
DG, Cheryl Studer, Bryn Terfel, Horst Hiestermann and Leonie Rysanek conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Berlin Opera Orchestra
The history of origins
In 1902, Richard Strauss received a copy of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” from a writer friend. He immediately realized its appeal as operatic material and began the literary and musical adaptation. When he saw the play in Max Reinhard’s production in Berlin later in 1902, and a friend remarked to him whether there might not be an opera in it for him, he was already able to reply, “I’m already composing it!” Strauss was a busy conductor and it was June 1905 before he had composed the last notes.
The scandalous original by Oscar Wilde and the libretto
The material of a 16-year-old virgin kissing the severed head of John the Baptist was received in 1892 as an outrageous perversion, respectively as the result of moral depravity, and caused a solid scandal. Oscar Wilde wrote the literary model for this opera thirteen years before the premiere of Strauss’s opera. Strauss took care of the libretto himself. He kept to the German translation, but had to delete about half of the text in order to shape the story to fit the opera.
Salome – The first opera of the modern age
The music and the underlying theme had struck a chord in 1905. Science and culture underwent huge progress and changes in the years of the “fin de siècles”. Siegmund Freud published his dream interpretations in 1903, inspired by Charcot’s research. “Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist at the Salpêtrerie in Paris from 1862 to 1893, held public demonstrations with hysterical patients. Linguistic defects, bizarre paralysis, and physical illness. The public and scientific study of psychosis made the conventional suffering on stage, something like that of Donizetti’s Lucia or even Verdi’s Violetta seem old-fashioned. In comparison, the sufferings of the heroines of 19th-century Italian operas, with their wonderful drama, offer mere storybook sentiments. In other words, the increasingly fragile fantasies of Italian and French opera were meant to make one believe that madness was an aesthetic condition, represented by endless and wonderful coloratura and lyrical mastery.” (Abbate/Parker, “The History of Opera”).
Music: The leitmotifs
Strauss used a long list of leitmotifs in “Salome”. You will find musical examples of a handful of the most important leitmotifs in the comments to single sections further down. Each important person was assigned a leitmotif, but leitmotifs were also associated with things (e.g. Herod’s bowl) or feelings (e.g. Obsession). They also reflected the harmony of the opera (see below); for example, the C-sharp major leitmotif of Salome is dissonant with the C major leitmotif of Jochanaan, describing the incompatibility of the constellation of the two characters.
Strauss was a brilliant harmonist and he exploited the language of keys to excess in “Salome”. The tonal structure of “Salome” is highly complex and goes as far as polytonality, in which at times characters sing in different keys. Basically, he tied keys to acting characters. For example, C-sharp minor/major is closely associated with the person of Salome. Jochanaan’s key is C major, the key of purity, and changes to E flat minor when he is incarcerated. C major forms a sharp dissonance with Salome’s key, just as his religiosity and her sexuality cannot be reconciled. Strauss also uses keys on a macro level, characterizing each of the four scenes with a key construct. For example, in the second scene he changes Salome’s key to A major to form a tritone to the key of the imprisoned Jochanaan (E-flat minor).
Music: Tonality and Chromatisms
Strauss was, of course, aware of the effect he was having on the traditionalists. With a “smiling pen” he later wrote about the reaction of his father (the former solo horn player of the Munich opera orchestra) when he played him from Salome: “God, this nervous music! That is just when loud cockchafers crawl around in your pants” (Strauss, “Memories of the first performances of my operas”).
Strauss differentiates the character of tonality by person. Three groups can be distinguished. The music of Jochanaan and the Nazarenes had a diatonic foundation. It is written simply and slowly; it is the music of the blind faithful. The music of Herod and the Jews is the shrill, high-dissonant music that most impressed the progressives. Salome’s music forms a late romantic middle ground.
Music: The orchestra
Strauss’s orchestra is of late Romantic size, with over 100 musicians. A fifteen-piece brass group, together with orchestral instruments that were unusual at the time, such as celesta, harmonium and organ, provide characteristic tone colors.
The role of Salome
The role of Salome is characterized by three requirements. First, it requires the vocal power of a highly dramatic soprano, which is usually associated with mature voices, which clashes with the second requirement, that of a 16-year-old’s raw sex appeal. Third, it requires the dancing skills of a seductive woman. It is self evident that the perfect combination is very rare. Usually a dance double is used to reduce the casting problems.
The premiere and the reactions
Already the singers’ rehearsals were harbingers of the coming turmoil. The Salome of the premiere, Marie Wittich, at first refused to sing the part (“I am a decent woman”). Strauss scowled at “Aunt Wittich’s” reaction and threatened to move the premiere to Berlin.
The work was openly rejected at both the German and Austrian courts. The first performance of Salome at the Dresden Court Opera on December 9, 1905, became a sensation. Although the critics teared the work to shreds, the audience was enthusiastic about Strauss’s “shocker” and Salome began its triumphal march around the world. In the Vienna Court opera, the work was banned by the censors after its first performance. Gustav Mahler then wanted to resign, but Strauss placated him that he was still needed in Vienna.
SALOME SCENE I
In Herod’s palace
Synopsis:Herod, the Jewish Tetrach lives with Herodias, the former wife of his brother, whom he had killed. He celebrates his birthday in the palace. Narraboth, a captain of the palace guard, observes the festivities. He is particularly taken with Salome, Herodias’ daughter from her first marriage. A page warns him not to look at Salome so eagerly, since terrible things could happen.
Already the first bars are unusual, a short, shimmering run of the clarinet introduces the theme of Salome:
We sense the sultry, sensual atmosphere of Herod’s palace. Strauss later reported that when he first read this line, the music was already in his mind, and he wrote “C-sharp minor” in the margin of the manuscript.
Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome – Bieber/Rohrholm
Synopsis: From the dungeon sounds the voice of Jochanaan, a prophet whom Herod had imprisoned and keeps under the strictest guard. Jochanaan prophesies that a stronger one will come and put an end to the vicious life.
Nach mir wird einer kommen – Terfel / Sinopoli
SALOME SCENE II
Synopsis: Salome leaves the festivities. She is disgusted by her stepfather’s advances. Narraboth tries in vain to engage Salome in conversation
Ich will nicht bleiben – Welitsch / Reiner
Synopsis: Suddenly the voice of Jochanaan is heard. Salome is fascinated and does not obey Herod’s request to return to the banquet. She demands to see the stranger. The soldiers deny her wish, since Herod has forbidden to open his dungeon. But with her seductive skills she manages to make Narraboth bring the prophet to her.
We hear the motifs of Jochanaan in the transition music to the 2nd picture, first the proud motif of Jochanaan:
Then the prophecy motif sounds:
Prelude 3. Scene – Sinopoli
SALOME SCENE III
Synopsis: Jochanaan appears. Salomé is immediately fascinated by the sight of him, his fair skin and long black hair. But Jochanaan does not pay her a glance and castigates Herodia’s life of sin.
The orchestra opens the third picture with the proud leitmotif of Jochanaan. He is the only person whose music is composed harmonically. Strauss composed it with reminiscences of church music, sung in a warm, firm voice. Vibrant strings join in at the climax of Jochanaan’s accusation, underscoring the drama of Jochanaan and Salome’s ensuing dialogue.
Listen to Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. He made his sensational international breakthrough in this role in 1996. His voice is opulent and splendid and is ideally suited for this role.
Wer ist dieses Weib, das mich ansieht – Studer/Terfel
Desire awakens in Salome
Synopsis: Salome, frantic with desire, wants to touch him, but Jochanaan rejects her.
We hear Salome’s obsession motif in the orchestra at the beginning
Listen to this passage sung by Montserrat Caballé from a 1968 recording. She is at the peak of her vocal quality and impresses with beautifully flooding passages in the high register. Her Salome was highly praised by the famous critic John Steane.
Jochanaan! Ich bin verliebt in deinen Leib – Caballé/Milnes
She wants to kiss Jochanaan’s mouth
Synopsis: Salome goes even further and wants to kiss his mouth. Narraboth warns her. By now in a trance-like state, Salome does not even notice the captain. Disgusted, Jochanaan refuses to kiss Salome.
This passage leads to one of the climaxes of the opera. Jochanaan’s rejection (“Never, daughter of Babylon, daughter of Sodom”) irritates Salome to the utmost and she sings the kiss motif (“ich will Deinen Mund küssen Jochanaan”) four times, which Strauss musically heightens to frenzy.
Listen to this captivating scene in a recording with Cheryl Studer. The American singer had a tremendous range in her repertoire, embodying 80 different roles in her stage career. When she recorded Salome in the 1990s, she was hailed as the best Salomé in a long time.
Niemals, Tochter Babylons, Tochter Sodoms (1) – Studer
We hear the last scene in a second version sung by Birgit Nilsson. Solti’s recording became a classic not only because of its exquisite cast, but also because of its innovative recording technique.
Niemals, Tochter Babylons, Tochter Sodoms (2) – Nilsson
The imprecation of Salome
Synopsis: Unnoticed by the two, Narraboth kills himself. Salome has no eyes for him. With a seductive tone she tries to beguile Jochanaan. Without success, but she does not let go of her wish.
Lass mich deinen Mund küssen, Jochanaan!
Synopsis: Finally, the prophet curses Salome and is taken back to the dungeon.
Strauss marks the cursing of Salome with a great orchestral outburst, and the picture ends with an immensely colorful and dramatic orchestral interlude. Pahlen (“Opernlexikon”): “The technical mastery of the music dramatist Strauss borders on the unfathomable. How this orchestra sounds! Different at every moment and always exactly as the mood demands”.
Du bist verflucht – Sinopoli
SALOME SCENE IV
Oscar Wilde packed his stage play into one act. Strauss took this idea and formally divided it into four pictures. Through the transition music, he forces the opera to be played without an intermission, thus maximizing the effect on the listener in Wagnerian fashion.
Synopsis: The company continues the feast on the terrace. Herod notices the body of Narraboth and an unholy foreboding creeps over him. Herod continues his advances to Salome, whereupon Jochanaan’s voice resounds again. Herodias proposes to hand him over to the Jews. Five Jews appear and demand that he be delivered into their hands. Herod, knowing that this would mean the death of Jochanaan and would lead to riots, waves it off.
“The extent of dissonance, of orchestral volume of sheer musical cacophony as in Salome had never been seen before. Repulsive characters, such as Herod, quiver and pant, screech and bare their teeth; his nagging wife Herodias is even less suitable for lyricism, if at all. (Abbate/Parker). The performance of the Five Jews exemplifies this novel aspect of classical music.
Wahrhaftig Herr, es wäre besser ihn in unsere Hände zu geben – Sinopoli et al.
Synopsis: Jochanaan announces the arrival of the Savior. Two Nazarenes tell of the miracles of the Messiah, who turns water into wine and heals lepers by simply touching them.
As a stylistic device of contrast, Strauss has composed the music of the Christians in the immediately following scene harmonically and clearly structured.
Siehe, der Tag ist nahe
The dance of the seven veils
Synopsis: Herod wants Salome to dance for him and offers to fulfill her free wish in return. Salome agrees and performs the Dance of the Seven Veils.
Salome is one of the most demanding roles for soprano. It demands volume, stamina, power and a thoroughly dramatic voice. After a long and challenging dance, the singer must master the tremendous final section that Strauss wrote for her. In every production, this leads to the question of whether the role can be separated into a dance part and a vocal part. At the premiere, Marie Wittich refused to perform the erotic dance herself.
This tradition has subsequently persisted. One of the few exceptions was the well-known American soprano Maria Ewing. She sang and danced the role and did so consistently. One veil after another falls to the floor until she actually presents herself stark naked.
Tanz der sieben Schleier – Ewing
Watch a second version of the dance by Swedish soprano Malin Byström.
Tanz der sieben Schleier – Byström
The Monstrous Wish of Salome
Synopsis: After the dance, she demands that Herod hand her Jochanaan’s head on a silver platter. Herod desperately tries to talk her out of her wish, but Salome insists on the agreement. At Herod’s command, guards leave and appear a short time later with the head and the dish.
The final scene can only be described with one word: “ecstasy”. Possibly Strauss wrote the greatest ecstasy in opera history with the final song of Salome and the orchestral accompaniment. It ends with the famous dissonance on the sforzato (sfz), almost at the end of the opera and the subsequent C-sharp major resolution:
We hear this final scene in three different versions:
First with the 1949 version by Ljuba Welitsch. “Fritz Reiner, who grew up in Dresden with the music of Richard Strauss, is on the podium in 1949 for a couple of ‘Salome’ performances that are even more in demand on the New York black market than any Broadway performances, and for which the tickets traded under the table break the then sound barrier of $100 a pop. The reason is red-haired, buxom and full of passionate Bulgarian temperament: Lyuba Welitsch has made a triumphant tour of Europe as the unleashed Salome with a deadly sweet little-girl voice, her fame has already preceded her, and the Metropolitan Opera debut will then be the pinnacle of her career. Before her voice quickly goes downhill, because of her all-consuming vocal technique, she carries even the strictest critics to breathless ovations.”
In the words of Jürgen Kesting (“Grosse Stimmen”), “Welitsch’s final song is, as a vibration of the senses, an assault on the listener’s nerves. Welitsch does not sing, she transforms into the character. The sound of her voice is at once pure and heated, clear and exquisitely colored. ‘Ich hab Deinen Mund geküsst’ is an addictive orgasm.”
Schlussszene – Welitsch/Reiner
A second interpretation with Maria Cebotari yet another Salome with a brilliant voice of high intensity that comes closest to the outstanding Welitsch in the final song. Listen especially to the passage from 11.00-12.50 where Cebotari sings herself into ecstasy.
Schlussszene – Cebotari
A third version again with Ljuba Welitsch from 1944. She had the privilege of rehearsing the role of Salome with Richard Strauss in 1944. She commented on it in an interview in the magazine “Opernwelt”: “Richard Strauss was terrific, he went through every bar, every phrase with Matacic and me. For example, this ‘ich habe deinen Mmmmmuuuunnnd geküsst’ this desire, he said, must come out in you, it was fantastic.”
“In the 1944 recording, for the climactic phase, on the last syllable of “Jochanaan,” she chooses the alternate high D-sharp instead of the G-sharp-and in doing so, the slenderly sensual voice not only sparkles like a diamond, it burns. What Welitsch has left behind is not only the ominous best rendering or representation of this scene-but the only one ever.” (Kesting, “Great Voices”)
Ich hab Deinen Mund geküsst – Welitsch / Matacic
Synopsis: After kissing Salome’s mouth, Herod commands, “You kill the woman!”
DG with Cheryl Studer, Bryn Terfel, Horst Hiestermann and Leonie Rysanek under the direction of Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Berlin Opera Orchestra.
Peter Lutz, Opera inside, the online opera guide to SALOME by Richard Strauss.