Richard Strauss’ infamous opera Salome (1905), about the beheading of John the Baptist, is the upcoming season finale for the National Symphony Orchestra. It’s a Biblical story told with brutal images and — in some productions, but not this one — a striptease that ends with the lead female standing nude. Banned in London and cancelled in New York, it’s been regarded as an erotic curiosity.
For stage director Anthony Pilavachi, however, Salome is also a political allegory.
“John the Baptist, was, like many examples in history, somebody who always told the truth. He more or less announced that something was coming, and that disturbed the very powerful people,” he said.
“A society realizes that something is coming to an end and they are trying to stop it but they cannot stop it. And that is the problem of Herodes when this piece starts.”
Salome begins at the end of the Roman Empire, before the advent of Christianity. The curtain rises on John the Baptist, who has been imprisoned by King Herodes and is calling out Christian prophecies from a cistern.
Drawn to his cries, Herodes’ young step-daughter Salome meets him and falls in love. When he rejects her advances, Salome seduces her step-father with a slinky dance and then asks for a favor: the prophet’s head on a plate.
It’s a grisly story with room for interpretation, and Salome’s backstory varies from production to production. In Taipei, she will be a girl enamored with world that does not have room for her, and vice versa.
“It’s as if the stepdaughter of the president of China fell in love with Ai Weiwei (艾未未). That is the story of Salome with John the Baptist. It is impossible — it cannot work out. It would be a disaster,” he said.
When: July 16 and July 18 at 7:30pm; July 20 at 2.30pm
Where: National Theater (國家戲劇院), 21-1 Zhongshan S Rd, Taipei City (台北市中山南路21-1號)
Admission: NT$500 to NT$5,000; available at NTCH box office or online at www.artsticket.com
Pilavachi is a veteran opera director based in Germany, winner of the 2012 Echo Klassik Award for his production of Ring des Nibelungen.
He’s one of the top-tier, high-priced cast and crew recruited for this staging of Salome. In the strenuous role of Salome is American dramatic soprano Nina Warren, a regular with the New York City opera in the 1990s who has since gone on to sing Turandot with the Los Angeles Opera and premiere Tan Dun’s Marco Polo in Munich, Hong Kong and Amsterdam.
King Herodes is Scottish tenor Stuart Patterson, who has sung Ottavio in Don Giovanni with Italy’s Opera di Pisa and Basilio in a recent production of Le Nozze di Figaro with Opera de Lausanne. Roswitha Christina Muller plays Queen Herodias and South Korea’s Antonio Yang is Jochanaan, Hebrew for John the Baptist.
The opera’s score is searing with writhing dissonances and it grants the NSO a platform to perform, said Lu Shao-chia (呂紹嘉), who chose the Strauss title. “It’s thrilling and very technically difficult, like a 100-minute symphony.”
Salome is an opera in one act with no intermission, sung in German with Chinese subtitles. It contains adult themes including violence and horror and is not recommended for children aged 12 and under.