Tragédy Lyrique in one act.
Libretto taken from the text of Oscar Wilde’s play (written in French) Salome of 1893.
First performed in Lyon on 30 October 1908
Based on Wilde’s play, the title of Mariotte’s opera, just like that of Richard Strauss which completely eclipsed it, makes the central character Salome, and the story of his opera follows closely her thoughts as she encounters John, is fascinated by his rejection of her, defies her disgusting step-father and demands John’s death.
King Herod is inside his palace giving a banquet. He has had Jokanaan (John the Baptist) captured and imprisoned in a cistern below a terrace. A young Syrian officer is guarding the cistern, accompanied by a young page of Queen Herodias. The Syrian, who can see into the palace, comments that the young Princess Salome is looking particularly beautiful and the Page urges him not to stare too much. Jokanaan’s voice is heard from the cistern and two soldiers discuss him – one says that he is a holy man, a prophet, with a large following. The page observes that the moon looks like a dead woman rising from her tomb, but the Syrian is still staring at Salome inside the palace.
There is a burst of noise from inside the palace and one of the soldiers comments that the guests are drinking Caesar’s health. The soldiers continue their discussion, and the older one explains that Herod had imprisoned his brother in the same cistern for twelve years, and even then, he did not die, but had to be strangled when Herold gave the ring of death to his executioner, Namaan – then Herod had married his brother’s widow, Herodias. The Syrian sees Salome rise from the dinner table and comments on how pale she is.
Salome comes onto the terrace: she has had enough of the banquet and of Herod’s constant ogling. She breathes deeply, glad to be away from the feasting. Jokanaan calls out and she asks whose voice it was; the soldiers tell her about Jokanaan and tells her that Herod is afraid of him. The Syrian officer tries to deflect her and persuade her to return to the feast, but Salome hears Jokanaan’s voice again and becomes more and more determined to see the prisoner. She orders the soldiers to bring Jokanaan out but they dare not. So she turns on the Syrian and, using his name, Narraboth, tries to persuade him to order Jokanaan to be brought out – he resists, but finally gives in and gives the order for Jokanaan to be led up out of the cistern. Again, the page compares the moon to a dead woman.
Jokanaan is led in and he rails against Herod – Narraboth pretends to Salome that he does not know the target of Jokanaan’s fury. But Jokanaan turns his cries against Herodias, calling for her repentance for her sins, and Salome is perfectly aware that Jokanaan is accusing her mother. She is intrigued by him – first his eyes, like black pools, then his thin body, like a cold ivory statue. Jokanaan finally turns on her and demands to know who she is. She announces that she is Salome, daughter of Herodias and princess of Judaea. He curses Salome, but her obsession makes her impervious to his rage; she tells him to speak again. While Narraboth desperately tries to stop her, she turns on Jokanaan and pours out her erotic fantasies: she wants to touch his white body and he is repulsed. Then she wants to touch his black hair and again he recoils. Narraboth tries to stop her, but Salome then says that she wants nothing more than to kiss Jokanaan’s mouth. Narraboth, realising that he has lost control of Salome and the whole situation, kills himself and falls dead between Salome and Jokanaan. She ignores this and persists in her erotic onslaught on Jokanaan. He first says that there is only one who can save her now, and that she will find him on the Sea of Galilee, but then he realises that her obsession to kiss him is bordering on insanity and he goes back down into the cistern. The page keeps repeating that his friend the Syrian officer has killed himself and the soldiers express their fears.
Herod calls out from the door of the banqueting hall: he wants to know why Salome left the banquet, but Herodias berates him for looking at the girl so much. Herod wants to return to the banquet but he slips in Narraboth’s blood, sees the body and asks whose it is. The soldiers tell him and he is perplexed – he gave no orders for the captain to be killed. He hears a roaring wind but Herodias tells him there is no wind. Herod calls for wine and asks Salome to join him. She refuses, so he asks for fruits and asks her to share them with him. Again she refuses.
Jokanaan’s voice is heard again and Herodias tells Herod to silence him – she accuses Herod of being afraid of the prophet and suggests handing him over to the Jews. Herod will not be drawn and instead he suddenly orders Salome to dance for him. She asks what he will give her if she does and Herod offers her whatever she wants, even half of his kingdom. Again, Herod hears the beating of wings as he confirms what he said: he comments that the moon has turned red, just as the prophet predicted. Jokanaan’s voice is heard again and Herodias tries to prevent Salome from dancing, but she begins the dance of the Seven Veils. When it is over, Jokanaan can again be heard railing against Salome. Herod tells Salome to make her request. Salome asks for the head of Jokanaan on a silver charger. This time, it is Herod who is appalled while Herodias congratulates her daughter. Herod offers her half of the kingdom, but she is adamant and will not be persuaded. Herod offers her jewels that even Herodias has never seen, he even offers her the veil of the temple, but Salome wants only one thing.
Finally, Herod gives the order for Jokanaan to be executed. He hands over the ring of death and, on a sign from Herodias, the executioner goes down into the cistern. Salome listens for the sound of the execution, but hears nothing. She orders the Page to go down into the cistern to see what is happening, then she orders the soldiers down. Then the arm of the executioner, Naaman, appears out of the cistern bearing a platter with Jokanaan’s head upon it. Salome exultantly launches into an ecstatic outburst – Jokanaan would not let her kiss his mouth before, but now he cannot stop her. The others watch in powerless horror. Herod turns to leave, ordering the torches to be put out, but Salome again exults in her victory: she can taste a bitter taste and asks whether it is blood or love. Herod turns and gives a single order ‘Kill that woman’. The soldiers run forward and crush Salome between their shields.
Other related OperaStory articles can be found on
- Antoine Mariotte’s life and his operas
- The background to the writing of Mariotte’s Salome
- Oscar Wilde’s life and writings and his links with opera
- Richard Strauss’s opera Salome
- The differences between Mariotte’s Salome and Strauss’s Salome
- Jules Massenet’s opera Herodias
- The origins of the Salome story
- Moon imagery in opera
© Roger Witts 2008