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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 6

Femme Fatale: Salome in Strauss and Wilde

by Joseph So / March 18, 2011

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Exploring the Myths and Realities of the Judean Princess

Together with Delilah and Carmen, Salome is considered the archetypal operatic femme fatale—seductive and alluring yet dangerous and forbidden. But is the popular image of Salome based on historical fact, or is it a product of the late 19th- and early 20th-century European fascination with the romanticized, exoticized Orient? To be sure, Salome did exist in history. In the Bible and in the writings of the historian Josephus, Salome (born AD 14) was the daughter of Herodias and the stepdaughter of the Emperor Herod Antipas, though she is unnamed in the New Testament. Christian writings tell the tale of Herod offering Salome the reward of her choice if she would dance for him at his birthday celebrations. Afterwards, Salome, at her mother’s urging, demanded the head of John the Baptist. Horrified but unwilling to go back on his word, Herod acquiesced and had the prophet killed and his head presented to Salome on a platter.

It is noteworthy that nothing in the Bible or in any historical document indicates that Herod lusted after his stepdaughter, or that Salome ­performed an erotically charged dance, the so-called Dance of the Seven Veils, as depicted in Oscar Wilde’s play and later in Strauss’ opera. There is also no documented evidence that she made passionate love to the severed head, which so disgusted Herod that he ordered his soldiers to kill Salome. According to Josephus, the real ­Salome lived to a ripe old age, married twice and had several children. The infamous Dance of the Seven Veils appears to be a figment of Wilde’s ­literary imagination. While there is a strong ­female Middle Eastern dance tradition, the idea of using a veil—a symbol of modesty—as an ­instrument of eroticism and seduction is ­unthinkable. It is generally assumed that Salome was between 14 and 16 at the time, but some scholarly research suggests that she was pre-­pubescent and that the dance was more likely playful and child-like. Thanks to Wilde’s poetic ­license, however, the idea of Salome as a femme fatale took hold in the popular imagination, an idea which was enhanced by Strauss’ opera.

Strauss’ Salome may be rather tame by today’s standards, but it created a scandal at its Dresden premiere in 1905. The idea of having the soprano discard each of her seven veils until she falls naked at the feet of Herod on stage did not ­escape the notice of the censors, and the opera was banned in London and Vienna. Mahler ­wasn’t able to stage it in Vienna until 1918. The title role makes daunting demands on the singer. On stage for practically the whole one hour forty minutes, the role requires physical and vocal stamina. A voice of considerable volume and power is necessary to penetrate the wall of sound from the pit, especially if the conductor gets carried away. And today’s audience expects Salome not just to sound great but to make the Dance believable with a lithe, supple body. In Strauss’ own words, Salome should be sung by “a sixteen-year-old with the voice of an Isolde”—a tall order indeed!

Sopranos who tackle this role tend to be gifted with one or the other attribute but rarely both. Marie Wittich, who created the role in 1905, found the opera “distasteful and obscene” and left the dancing to a ballerina. Often singers with the voice but not the physique du rôle prefer to make their mark in the recording studio—for ­example, Birgit Nilsson, Jessye Norman, and Montserrat Caballé left important legacies (though the generous-figured Caballé attempted it on stage in Madrid in 1977 and it has been ­preserved for posterity on video). Among the early exponents of the role, singers who managed to be convincing both vocally and dramatically were Maria Cebotari, Ljuba Welitsch, and Leonie Rysanek, all celebrated for their gleaming tone and stage persona. In recent decades, there has been a gradual shift in the casting of Salome from heavyweight dramatic sopranos to singers with more lyric voices and more convincing stage presence. Artists who fall into the latter category include Anja Silja, Hildegard Behrens, Cheryl Studer, Karan Armstrong, Catherine Malfitano, Stephanie Sundine, Maria Ewing, Inga Nielsen, and more recently Angela Denoke, Nadja Michael, Karita Mattila, Erika Sunnegårdh, and Deborah Voigt, all with varying degrees of success. Canadian lyric soprano Teresa Stratas was a vocally incandescent and dramatically riveting Salome in the 1974 Götz Friedrich film conducted by Karl Bohm, but given her modest-sized instrument, she wisely declined to sing it onstage.

Staging of the Dance of the Seven Veils has also undergone a transformation over the years. From the 1905 premiere to the 1980s, there was little nudity to speak of, with genteel choreography and the singer under the cover of full-body stocking. Some stagings, like the one for Caballé in Madrid, even have the singer fully clothed, playing with veils she collected during the Dance! The more recent productions have “earthier choreography” and greater dramatic intensity. Two sopranos were the first to “take it all off”: Catherine Malfitano in the Peter Weigl production for Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1990, and Maria Ewing in the 1992 Sir Peter Hall production for Covent Garden. (Seven years later, Malfitano wore a body stocking in the Luc Bondy production for Covent Garden.) In the Munich production I saw two years ago, German soprano Angela Denoke removed her top for extended minutes during the Dance. Finnish diva Karita Mattila appeared in the buff in the Jürgen Flimm production at the Met in 2003. When she repeated it for the Met in HD shown worldwide in movie houses in 2008, the Met’s self-censorship took over and the camera avoided her full-frontal ­nudity. Opera de Montreal is fortunate to have soprano Nicola Beller Carbone as Salome, one of her signature roles. Canadian audiences have ­already experienced her artistry as Tosca (Montreal) and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Toronto). Her appearance here will be one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the opera season.

Salome, Opéra de Montréal (Place-des-Arts), March 19-31 operademontreal.com / Tickets available through our fundraiser at dons.lascena.org

Selected Audio and Video of Salome

One of the most popular of Strauss operas, Salome is also among the most recorded. There are nearly fifty complete commercial and pirate recordings on CD and DVD, with many of them excellent performances and worthy of inclusion in any library. Below is a highly personal list of my favourites:


Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas is a visually and vocally stunning Salome in the 1974 Götz Friedrich film ­conducted by Karl Bohm. It has a strong cast ­including Bernd Weikl as Joch­anaan, Hans Beirer as Herod, and Astrid Varnay as a grotesque Herodias; and of course the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm. Being a film, it doesn’t have the sense of occasion of a live ­performance, but it is a minor quibble. Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel Classica

Catherine Malfitano may not be perfect ­vocally, but she’s a terrific Salome, especially in the 1990 Peter Weigl production for Deutsche Oper Berlin. This performance also has Leonie Rysanek—a great ­Salome in her day—as a dynamite Herodias, and Simon Estes at his stentorian best as Jochanaan. The late Giuseppe Sinopoli conducts the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra brilliantly. Kultur Video


B Sinopoli recorded this Salome for DG around the same time as the Deutsche Oper Berlin performances, and it has a similar cast except for Cheryl Studer replacing Malfitano and Bryn Terfel for Simon Estes. Studer has the vocal sweetness for a very believable Salome, and Terfel sings thrillingly as Jochanaan. On the debit side, without the visual element, Rysanek’s vocal flaws as Herodias are more obvious. Deutsche Grammophon

This recording by Hildegard Behrens conducted by Herbert von Karajan has been reissued by EMI on its Great Recordings of the Century ­series. It was Behrens's first recording in 1977 and she was in fabulous voice. Jose van Dam is an ­effective and mellifluous Jochanaan, and Agnes Baltsa gives a terrifically sung Herodias. Von Karajan coaxes the most beautiful sounds from the Vienna Philharmonic. EMI

Do you prefer a Brunnhilde as Salome? Then Birgit Nilsson fits the bill with her immense, steely tone—limitless in power yet capable of nuance. Character tenor Gerhard Stolze is an ­insinuating Herod. Some may find Solti’s ­approach a bit too aggressive but it’s never less than ­exciting. Recorded in 1961, the sound ­remains a marvel fifty years later. Decca

To many, the best Salome was and will always be Ljuba Welitsch. She is at her best in a 1949 live performance from the Met, conducted by Fritz Reiner. Her voice has a combination of sweetness and ­intensity that takes ones breath away. The recording has obviously dated sonics but is still memorable. Guild

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