Richard Strauss – Salome

Opera in one act
Libretto by the composer based on a German translation by Hedwig Lachmann of
Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1893)
First performed in the Court Theatre, Dresden, on 9 December 1905

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, Narraboth, is the captain of the guard and is guarding the cistern.  With him is a young page of Queen Herodias.  Narraboth, who can see into the palace, comments that the young Princess Salome (the daughter of Herodias and step-daughter of Herod) is looking particularly beautiful but that there is a strangeness about her, and the Page comments on the moon, comparing it to a woman rising very slowly from a tomb.

There is a burst of noise from inside the palace and one of the soldiers comments that it sounds like the howling of animals – the other soldier replies that this is typical of Jews, always arguing about their religion.  Narraboth continues to comment on Salome’s beauty, while the Page tells him that it is dangerous to look at people so intently, and the soldiers observe that Herod is looking particularly sombre.  Narraboth again comments on Salome’s paleness and again the Page warns him not to look at her.

Jokanaan’s voice is now heard booming out of the cistern: he speaks of the Saviour who will follow him.  One of the soldiers wants to silence him but the other says that he is a gentle, holy man.  A Cappadocian asks who he is and where he came from and the soldiers explain that he came from the desert and had a great following, but that Herod has forbidden anyone to see him.

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 and the Jews who constantly argue, the Egyptians who just sit silent and the Romans who are so coarse.  Jokanaan calls out and she asks whose voice it was; ‘The prophet’, answers one of the soldiers.  She is intrigued, she knows that Herod is afraid of his prisoner and as Narraboth tries to deflect her and persuade her to return to the feast, Salome 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 Narraboth and 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.

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 (Salome’s mother), 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 turn 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.  Then she says that she wants nothing more than to kiss his 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 diversionary tactic 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 is bordering on insanity and he goes back down into the cistern.

Herod and Herodias now come out onto the terrace with their guests.  Herod wants to know why Salome left the banquet, but Herodias berates him for looking at the girl so much.  Herod comments on the moon – to him, it looks like a drunken mad woman looking for her lovers.  He gives orders for the banquet to continue on the terrace, and when he slips in Narraboth’s blood he 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 continues to hear it, and then comments on how pale Salome is.  He 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.  He turns angrily on Herodias, scolding her for bringing up her daughter to be so discourteous, but Herodias reminds him that she is of royal blood, but that his father was merely a thieving camel driver.  In a fury, Herod asks Salome to sit with him and promises to give her Herodias’s throne, but she refuses that too.

Jokanaan’s voice is heard again and Herodias tells Herod to silence him – she accuses Herod of being afraid of the prophet.  One of the Jewish guests tells Herod that his best course would be to hand Jokanaan over to them and this provokes an argument among the Jews as to whether it is possible to see God.  Herod wearily silences them by suggesting that Jokanaan may be a reincarnation of Elias the prophet.  The Jews again break out into an argument.  As Jokanaan continues to prophesy the coming of the Saviour, Herod asks what this means.  Two Nazarenes among the guests describe some of the miracles performed by the Messiah – the turning of water into wine, the healing of Jairus’s daughter – and say that the person doing all this is now in the area of Jerusalem.  Herod is alarmed; he does not want the dead to be raised (after all, he killed his own brother to get both the throne and his brother’s wife, Herodias).

Jokanaan continues to pour his hatred onto Herodias, while Herodias demands that he be silenced.  In the middle of all this, Herod suddenly orders Salome to dance for him.  She refuses.  Herod wearily offers her whatever she wants.  Herodias, seeing what is coming, forbids her daughter to dance, but Salome asks Herod to repeat his offer.  Again, Herod hears the beating of wings as he confirms what he said.  Herodias again tries to prevent her, but Salome begins the dance of the Seven Veils.  When it is over, Herod taunts Herodias and 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, then the largest emerald in the world, then his precious white peacocks, 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.

Potted heid: this Andorra postage stamp of 1989 depicts the Salome story taken to its limit: John’s head is served up for dinner with a raw turnip as an accompaniment
(don’t try this at home)  

Finally, Herod gives the order for Jokanaan to be executed.  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, sobered now by the appalling sight, accuses Herodias of rearing a monster but Herodias says that she is well-pleased with her daughter.  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.

—ooOoo—

Related OperaStory articles can be found on

  • Richard Strauss’s life and his operas
  • Oscar Wilde’s life and his contribution to opera
  • Oscar Wilde’s play Salome
  • The sources for Salome
  • Gustave Flaubert’s version of the Salome story in his opera Herodias
  • Strauss at a crossroads and how he found the Salome story
  • Strauss’s music for Salome and what he omitted from Wilde’s play
  • The Dance of the Seven Veils
  • The reputation of Salome and Sir Thomas Beecham versus the censor
  • The Moon as a Mirror: moon imagery in Strauss’s Salome
  • Strauss’s Salome as a jewel box
  • Strauss’s rival?  The other Salome opera by Antoine Mariotte

and many more aspects of the opera

 

©  Roger Witts 2008

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