Jules Massenet – Hérodiade

Opéra in four acts and seven scenes.
Libretto by Paul Milliet and ‘Henri Grémont’ (Georges Hartmann), developed from an original Italian text by Angelo Zanardini, based on the short story Herodias by Gustave Flaubert.
First performed at the Théâtre de La Monnaie, Brussels, on 19 December 1881

Although Hérodiade tells the same story of Salome and John the Baptist, the difference between it and Richard Strauss’s opera Salome could not be greater.  Massenet based Hérodiade very firmly on Flaubert’s short story, but added his own typical twist.  Like Flaubert, he gave his opera a title which appears to make Herodias, Salome’s mother, the principal character, but Salome is the heroine, and as in so many of his operas, Massenet ended up writing music for a flawed young woman deeply in love, even though this meant ignoring history, the Bible, Flaubert and common sense.  The opera is bizarre, but fascinating.

Act 1
The first act is set in an outer courtyard in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem – Massenet is not bothered about historical authenticity, and assumes that his audience will have heard of Jerusalem, but not in Herod’s palace at Machaerus, which is where Flaubert’s story is set.  He describes the scene vividly – there are groves of oleanders, sycamores and cedars and the Dead Sea with the hills of Judea can be seen in the distance.  It is dawn.

Slaves and merchants who have come from afar greet a new day – they have come bringing gifts for Herod, but as they realise all the different races which they represent, they begin to quarrel.  Phanuel, a Chaldean, arrives and tells them to work together because a revolt against Roman rule is imminent and they must be ready to support it.  The merchants leave and the palace officials take the gifts inside.  Salome enters and approaches Phanuel.  She does not know who her mother is (a secret which only Phanuel knows), but in her searches for her mother, she has been comforted by the prophet John (the Baptist), and has fallen in love with him, and followed him to Jerusalem.  Phanuel tells her that her faith will be her guide, and as she leaves, a gaggle of dancing girls arrives, followed by Herod, who has become besotted by Salome since she arrived at the palace but is agitated that she is not with the dancers.  His concern is interrupted by his wife, Herodias, who bursts in in a state of great anxiety.  She has just been publicly insulted by the prophet, who called her ‘Jezebel’ and threatened her.  She demands that he be beheaded, but Herod refuses, reminding her that the Jews revere John, and that he himself hopes to make use of John’s influence with the local people when the revolt against the Romans breaks out.  Herodias tries to persuade Herod, reminding him both of the passion of their early days together and that she had left her young daughter behind in Rome in order to be with him.  She accuses Herod of not loving her any more and he responds by telling her that his sole desire is power.  John now appears and curses Herodias again; Herod and Herodias leave hurriedly.  Salome arrives and tells John that she loves him.  He is moved, but advises her to keep her emotions under control – he is looking forward to the arrival of a new saviour and her urges Salome to turn her thoughts to heaven.  Salome, however, enraptured by John rather than heaven, falls to her knees in ecstasy.

Act 2
Herod cannot sleep: he orders his dancing girls to entertain him and remind him of Salome while he sings of the constant dream of her which never leaves him (in the great aria Vision fugitive).  One girl suggests that he take a powerful potion to make the vision more real.  Phanuel arrives and Herod is brought back to earth – he asks Phanuel to help him get rid of his obsession with Salome but Phanuel tells him that there is no time for weakness when the kingdom is threatened.  Herod replies that the alliances which he forged with the neighbouring countries against Rome will soon help to destroy the Roman empire.

In a public square in Jerusalem, Herod stirs the people into an anti-Roman frenzy and when the Roman pro-consul, Vitellius, arrives, the crowd demand the return of the Temple of Israel.  Vitellius reassures them that Rome will consider any legitimate request.  This piece of forked-tongue diplomacy wins over the crowd.  John, with Salome among his supporters, arrives and as Herod points Salome out to Phanuel, Herodias seizes the opportunity to denounce John to Vitellius as a dangerous revolutionary.  John is arrested.

Act 3
Phanuel gazes at the night sky and asks the stars to reveal whether John is just a man or is he a god.  Herodias breaks into his meditation and demands that he show her the star which determines the fate of her rival for Herod’s love, adding that only a reunion with her abandoned daughter will bring her any peace.  Phanuel reveals that Salome herself is Herodias’s daughter but Herodias refuses to believe it: Phanuel sends her away, telling her that she is just a woman, and not a mother.

As choirs can be heard singing the praises of Herod and Herodias in the temple, Salome has not been able to sleep: John has been imprisoned and she prays to God to save him.  Herod arrives and she spurns his approaches, telling him that she loves another greater than him.  Herod demands to know who this is and threatens to have him and Salome executed.  The people gather to attend the unveiling of the Holy of Holies and when Herod, Phanuel and the Roman dignitaries enter the temple for the ceremony, the priests demand John’s death, accusing him of plotting against Rome.  Herod still hopes to use John for his own ends and puts the priests off by telling them that a madman cannot be condemned of a crime.  He tells John that he will save him if John agrees to back Herod’s plans for a revolt against Rome, but John refuses.  Salome steps forward to prevent John from being rearrested and Herod realises that it is John who is his rival for Salome: he orders them both to be arrested and condemns them both to death.

Act 4
Deep in a dungeon, John welcomes martyrdom, saying that his only regret is that he will have to leave Salome; he too asks God to reveal whether He has given John a divine mission or whether he is just a man after all.  Salome joins him and John reassures her that death will enable them to be reunited in heaven.  As John is taken away for execution, Salome is given a last-minute reprieve by Herod.

At a banquet, Herod, Herodias, Phanuel and Vitellius are celebrating Rome’s power: Salome enters and pleads for John’s life, telling everyone that it was John who comforted her when she was abandoned by her own mother.  Herodias is moved and is about to tell Salome the truth when the executioner arrives with John’s severed head.  Salome throws herself at Herodias determined to kill the woman who has brought about John’s death.  Herodias begs for mercy and reveals that she is Salome’s mother: horrified, Salome stabs herself and dies.

–ooOoo—

Other related OperaStory articles are on 

  • Massenet’s life and operas
  • The librettists of Hérodiade, Milliet and Hartmann
  • Gustave Flaubert and his contribution to opera
  • The background to the writing of Hérodiade
  • The strange and always overlooked contribution of the Italian librettist Angelo Zanardini to Massenet’s opera Hérodiade
  • Other operas on the story of Salome and John the Baptist
  • Places to visit related to Massenet, Flaubert and Herod

and many other aspects of the story

©  Roger Witts 2008

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