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.
The role of Salome will be sung in Taipei by the young soprano Inga Fischer. She has sung it in five different productions in Germany already and has also sung Senta in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in a production created by the veteran film director Werner Herzog.
John the Baptist will be baritone Peter Weber, also very experienced in his role. He's sung it in Beijing under Seji Ozawa, as well as in Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Bucharest, and Barcelona. He was chosen to sing the part in a new production in Genoa in February.
The manic role of Herod will be taken by tenor Hans-Dietr Bader, a veteran of nearly 90 different opera productions. Herodias, his sullen and mocking wife, will be mezzo Leandra Overmann.
The set and costumes will evoke the period when Strauss wrote the opera, the decaying world of the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to World War I.
"They are a fantasy version of that era," said designer Tsai Hsiu-chin. "The world of the opera displays power gone mad, a society out of control and crumbling. So that is what we will seek to show in the scenery and the costumes."
A model of the set made available to Taipei Times this week showed a gilt, red and white palace assembly room, with a structure due to contain a primitive elevator of the time which will bring John the Baptist up from his dungeon.
The costume designs appeared exceptionally elegant, but with a touch of extravagance added. The opera has no real period, Tsai said, but was instead a myth that had been constantly adapted over the centuries. Setting it in Strauss's own time would catch the air of decadence that characterizes both the story and the music, she said.
The Baptist's severed head will be made by a company specializing in such things, she added. A wax copy would be taken of the singer's face and skull, reproduced as exactly as possible, and a blood-dripping neck added. The effect should be gratifyingly horrific.
The opera productions of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra have a history of visual splendor. Both Madama Butterfly in 2001 and Cavalleria Rusticana last year were gorgeously exotic and spectacular. Tsai Hsiu-chin was responsible for the design of both these productions. Expectations are consequently high for Salome next weekend.
Richard Strauss' opera is an extraordinary work by any standards. It only lasts an hour and 40 minutes and there is no interval and no chorus. But its cumulative power is irresistible. The music is sickly sweet and astringently acidic at one and the same time, like lemon juice squeezed onto a dark chocolate mousse.
The score's brass effects are especially famous, raspingly savage and ominously sonorous, to which the high woodwind adds a flirtatious, drugged orientalism. The combination of these two things is quickly addictive, giving its early audiences the forbidden pleasures of opium and sado-masochistic obsession from the comfort of their red plush seats.
As for Salome's dance before Herod, this has always been a theatrical problem. Known as the "dance of the seven veils," it's meant to be a striptease, leaving the dancer naked when the seventh veil is discarded. Given all the other censorship problems, this was scarcely possible in the early productions. Nudity has sometimes featured since, but, as one artist associated with the Taipei extravaganza commented, some kinds of underwear can be far more erotic than simple nakedness. To know for certain what this production will opt for it'll probably be necessary to buy a ticket.
`Salome' plays at Taipei's National Theater on Oct. 17 and Oct. 19, beginning at 7:30pm. Tickets are from NT$400 to NT$1,200. For further information, call (02) 2343 1647.
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