Fortunately for opera fans, Seattle Opera has chosen to mount a new production of Richard Strauss' "Salome," taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and retold in the infamous play by Oscar Wilde, completed in 1892.
Wilde conceived the idea in 1890, while he was a student at Oxford. When he finally set to work, he wrote the text in French, hoping that the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt would play the title role. After reading the script, she immediately agreed to portray the doomed princess, who caused both John the Baptist's death and her own. In her enthusiasm, Bernhardt even agreed to produce the play in London. Before it could open in the summer of 1892, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, who had the power of censorship over any theatrical production.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was quickly intrigued by the play as opera. The context of the shocking, macabre story seemed a natural match for the German composer's musical complexity. But bad publicity continued even after the 1905 premiere at the Dresden Opera. Following the 1907 Metropolitan Opera premiere in New York, The New York World published a review that declared, "Hark! From the pit a fearsome sound that makes your blood run cold. Symphonic cyclones rush around -- and the worst is yet untold."
The skeleton of this drama is in the New Testament (Matthew, Chapter 14), but Oscar Wilde put flesh on the bones. With an undercurrent of lustful sex permeating the drama, King Herod, Tetrarch of Judea, has his eyes on Salome, his 16-year-old stepdaughter. Salome is a product of the ultimate dysfunctional family. Her mother, Herodias, murdered her father in order to marry Herod. Herod has imprisoned John the Baptist, who can't stop proclaiming the coming of Christ.
As she listens to John the Baptist curse her mother for her sinful deeds, Salome becomes increasingly attracted to him. Time after time, she insists that she wants to kiss him. But John repeatedly rejects her as a harlot.
In his lust for his stepdaughter, Herod asks Salome to dance for him. He offers her anything if she will comply. Herodias advises her daughter to refuse. But Salome, confirming Herod's oath to give her anything, finally agrees over her mother's protests. After Salome concludes her seductive dance, she makes a chilling request for John's head on a platter.
Salome waits for the executioner to hand up John's head from his cistern-prison. Declaring her passion for him, she admires his hair and his mouth. Kissing his dead lips, she asks if their bitterness is the taste of love. Horrified, Herod commands his soldier to crush her to death with their shields. Her dying shrieks can be heard over the mayhem.
Maestro Gerard Schwarz of the Seattle Symphony, a noted interpreter of Strauss, will be on the podium to conduct this one-act opera. Sopranos Nina Warren and Eilana Lappalainen will share the role of Salome. Tenor Peter Kazaras will sing Herod. Herodias will be sung by mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle. Richard Paul Fink will be the Jochanaan (John the Baptist), and Thomas Studebaker will sing Narraboth.
This is a new Seattle Opera production, designed for the Mercer Arts Arena, the interim facility while the new opera house being built. The designer is Robert Dahlstrom, who made his company debut in 1984 with "The Ballad of Baby Doe." Sharon Ott, who made her debut in 1999 with "Vanessa," is the director.
Wayne Bloomingdale, a free-lance writer and music critic, is on the music faculties of Saint Martin's College and Pacific Lutheran University. He is music director at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Olympia.
- What: Seattle Opera's production of the Richard Strauss opera.
- When: March 23-April 6. Evening performances at 7:30 p.m., matinees at 2 p.m.
- Where: Mercer Arts Arena, 305 Harrison St., Seattle.
- Tickets: $35-$107.
- Information: Call 206-389-7676 or go online to www.ticketmaster.com or www.seattleopera.org.