Fri, Oct 10, 2003 - Page 17 News List

'Salome' retains her charm

The Taipei Symphony Orchestra presents Richard Strauss' opera in two performances next weekend at the National Theater

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The Dancer's Reward, a scene from the story of Salome,by Aubrey Beardsley

One thing at least can be said for certain about Richard Strauss' Salome -- it is the most scandal-plagued opera that has ever been written.

It's the story of a man besotted with his second wife's daughter, and the daughter equally obsessed with the imprisoned young John the Baptist, so much so that she asks for his severed head as payment for dancing naked before her half-crazed step-father. It may not cut much ice in the era of Internet pornography. Fortunately, however, the score and the text are both major masterpieces. Salome is no longer banned, as it was extensively when it first appeared, but the searing savagery of its score, together with its lyrics evocative of a sensual, permissive Orient, combine to ensure its continuing fascination.

"These will not only be the first ever Taiwan performances of Salome," said Felix Chen, the Taipei Symphony Orchestra's maestro. "They will also be the first complete performances in Taiwan of any opera by Richard Strauss."

Eighteen soloists and a rehearsal pianist have been brought in specially from Germany for the occasion. "Maybe I could have trained some local singers if I'd had a couple of years to do it in," said Chen. "But considering the demanding nature of the music it seemed best to employ the services of artists already experienced in their roles."

"It's very difficult music to play," said one member of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra earlier this week. "We've been rehearsing it for a long time already -- and no wonder."

Performances of Salome were prohibited in England even when Oscar Wilde first wrote the text as a play (in French), three years before his trial and subsequent imprisonment in 1895 under the UK's anti-gay legislation. But it flourished in continental Europe and was quickly translated into German. This was the version the young Richard Strauss saw. Up till then he had gained fame and some notoriety with his "tone poems," highly original orchestral pieces that combined modernist astringency with hauntingly melodic effects. His two attempts at operas had flopped, however. Suddenly with Salome, first produced in 1905, all that changed.

The subject is in itself intrinsically dramatic. The young Salome, running away from her leering step-father, peers down into the dungeon in which Jokanaan (the Hebrew name for John the Baptist) is imprisoned, tricks a guard who's also infatuated with her to bring him out, and then goes into ecstasy over his handsome physique, only to be confronted by his other-worldly prophesies of a new Jewish savior. All this overflowed with drama even before Strauss got his massively talented hands on it.

The plot fits together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle when the frustrated Salome persuades the frustrated Herod to order the execution of the Baptist and bring his head to her on a silver platter so that she can finally kiss his incomparable lips. Herod, overwhelmed with jealousy, the taunts of his stupid wife and guilt over what his desire has made him do, orders the soldiers to crush Salome to death under their shields.

Salome was initially banned in Vienna, London and New York (where a mass prayer meeting was held to protect the city from its poisonous influence). But eminent composers such as Mahler and Elgar rallied round, describing Strauss as the greatest musical genius of the age. And indeed Salome was proved to be the first of a long string of superb and exceptionally varied operas to issue from his pen.

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