Romance in opera serves both comedy and tragedy, but “Salome” by Richard Strauss exists in a different world of human behavior.
Strauss was so gifted at musical portrayal he once said he could show a silver spoon in a baby’s mouth.
He wrote some of his greatest music in “Salome,” but the story he brought to life is a biblical shocker of lust and depravity.
Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of “Salome” Nov. 5 to 13 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
Strauss turned to ancient stories for his two most radical operas, “Salome” and “Elektra.” “Salome” is based on a biblical story turned into a French play by Oscar Wilde. The opera received 38 curtain calls at its premiere in 1905 in Dresden, Germany, but received only one performance because of its subject matter.
The opera takes place at the court of governor Herod in Judea. He’s married to Herodias, his brother’s widow. He lusts after his daughter-in-law, princess Salome. She becomes interested in Jokanaan, John the Baptist, who is imprisoned by Herod. Jokanaan harshly condemns the immoral life of Heriodas and rebuffs Salome.
When Herod asks Salome to dance for him, she makes him promise to fulfill whatever she wishes. Salome’s dance is a strip tease for her father-in-law, after which she demands the head of Jokanaan so she can kiss the lips that rejected her. In the final scene, sometimes performed in excerpt at orchestral concerts, she sings of her love for Jokanaan, but after she kisses his severed head, Herod declares her a monster and orders his soldiers to kill her.
“I don’t think she’s a monster, but she turns into one because she can’t possibly entertain the idea of being rejected. She’s privileged,” says soprano Patricia Racette, who will make her company debut singing Salome.
“She’s damaged goods, basically,” says Racette. “She’s a product of her environment. This is the most dysfunctional family ever seen on stage. She doesn’t know better. She doesn’t know what real goodness is and that’s the appeal of Jokanaan.”
Racette became a star singing Italian opera, but has recently added other roles she feels now suit her vocally and temperamentally, such as Salome and Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk by Dmitri Shostakovich.
“Although the size and weight of my voice is full lyric, it still wanted to function with a little more thrust and angularity that is inherent in Salome,” she says. “It’s not something I’m adapting to. It’s something which capitalizes on my natural ability.”
She loves singing in German.
“In a purely diction sense, German functions very much the way English does and I love singing in English. English sort of moves from consonant to consonant whereas, for example, Italian moves from vowel to vowel with consonants interspersed,” says the soprano. “There’s a crispness to German that I find satisfying vocally and in terms of the text and the flavor of the text.”
Stage director Andrew Sinclair says Salome kisses Jokanaan’s lips out of frustration.
“That’s her triumph, but it’s an empty triumph,” he says. “At the end she realizes she’s killed the only person who might have been able to save her. So when Herod says ‘Kill that woman,’ she really thinks, ‘Yes, kill me because I have nothing to live for.’ So it’s a tragedy, really.”
Opera music director Antony Walker, 48, will be conducting his first performances of an opera he’s loved since he was 13.
Walker says he admires the way Strauss continues to pay homage to Richard Wagner in his use of leitmotifs, short musical ideas associated with specific characters or symbolism.
“You hear these tunes or motifs and they keep coming back and are developed throughout the piece but you’re not really aware of them. You feel that you’re going on a journey and keep returning to something familiar. The waves of sound that Strauss creates really propel the music and the drama.”
Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].