Salome is a hard-to-understand opera by Richard Strauss based on Oscar Wilde’s French play. Since it is an atonal opera, rather than enjoying melodic arias, we have to listen and track the motives that are repeated melodies over one sentiment.
The opening sequence is our first motive in this motive opera. You can hear at least 6-7 time until the 5th minute. This is similar Narraboth repeating the same sentence over and over and Page warns him with the same sentence every time. It is like everything is repeated, people only see one thing apart from the others. Page only cares about Narraboth, Narraboth only cares about Salome, Salome about Jokanaan, Jokanaan about the Messiah.. that is the reason Salome is perverted by. In other words, opera starts with an obsession, obsession of a melody, that is the motif of Salome. Obsession, the sudden mood change, hiding the true self.. Salome is like her motif, suddenly changes her mind, loving Jokanaan’s body, hating Jokanaan’s body.
Narraboth is the most lyrical character in the opera. His obsessive beauty admirer sentence ‘’How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight’’ is just wonderful melody, not an usual melody but the most lyrical thing in that absurd world, the purist thing in that ugliness. And he was the only character in the opera who is in love with someone, so deep that he couldn’t bare to see Salome’s unusual desires. So, even when he tries to stop Salome from ‘’wanting to kiss Jokanaan’’, he is so lyrical, both sentences and melodies. In 33.48 when he says ‘’Who is the dove among all doves?’’, his line is bright somehow. And when Narraboth is in this illusion of Salome, Page always tries to prevent some bad things’ happening. He doesn’t give any suggestion why, or any material to convince Narraboth, only in the attitude of let’s leave it. I think this may be the reason Page is a trousers role, that is a traditional opera role. Page trying to prevent things is similar to our act in ourselves while we watch the opera. We know something bad will happen because of the atonality, and Page knows it since the moon looks strange that night. In other words, Page represent us, the public opinion, wants to keep things as it is, so punished with a trousers role that never plays an important role and so démodé.
How we given the Salome’s mood change and character in the first motive, it is the similar thing with the moon that we are given the summary of the plot. Every character, except for Jokanaan, gave a description of the moon that night, in fact they summarized the current situation on the stage. First, Page said that ‘’The moon is like a woman who steps out of grave, like a woman who is dead’’ Then Narraboth said ‘’Like a little princess whose feet are white doves, one can imagine its dancing’’. And Salome resembled it to a ‘’like the pure beauty of a virgin’’. All are describing Salome, but also indicating some future events. Page’s sentences could be about Narraboth, that eventually died for Salome. Narraboth’s sentence foresees the dance of the Salome. And Salome already in love with the beauty of the untouched virgin that could be Jokanaan. According to Herod ‘’Moon is strange, somebody looking for lovers’’ and Heroidas says ‘’Moon is just the moon’’ stating her carelessness.
The music of the opera is not expected. It turns lyrical when Narraboth speaks, then cuts it suddenly. If we couldn’t see the stage, we couldn’t understand where Narraboth killed himself because Salome doesn’t notice it, so the music doesn’t notice it. When we expect Jokanaan’s head, we didn’t hear that in music also, we hear the Salome’s reaction, the questions of ‘’Did it happened?’’ by first the violin then Salome herself. The music changes when Salome sees the head. Afterwards, in the end, when everybody in the stage freeze, the audience shockingly watch Salome kissing the head, the amount of blood pushing audience to the limits, but the music is in major tone and satisfying. We are in Salome’s head, and this is expressionism. Knowing that, if we think through, we were in Salome’s head from the beginning. We began with the Salome motive, even she was not in the stage, and we have the atonal music from the beginning. So concerning the debate of whether the translation and the music of Strauss cause to think that Salome is perverted from the beginning, I can say that since the music reflects Salome’s mind, we can argue that she was already in the atonal world. Her first sentences are ‘’Why Tetrarch looking me that way all the time, is it normal?’’ She has already in a chaos that she knows her life is not normal. Even though, she is not perverted in the beginning of the opera, she still had issues from the beginning, caused by growing up in that situation, for sure.
Motives are everywhere in this opera. Sometimes repeated over and over again by different instruments in different octaves and tones. For appreciating the atonal music, looking for the motives really is essential, there are enormous number of repetition. Normally, if we hear the leitmotif we associated it with a feeling or a situation, a memory etc. However, in here, we have a motif that repeats a lot, but not give an essential meaning. I mean, although it an expressionist music, I cannot say that with every time the motif plays, Salome remembers that motives association. It sometimes put there because the Jews are discussing religion and the motive is related with that subject. However, we know Salome is not listening to them. However, the change of motives can implicate that, for example, Jokanaan’s name motif changed overtime because Jokanaan changed status in the eyes of Salome.
About the staging, David McVicar makes the downstairs of the palace a gas chamber. This is a reminder of the ongoing debates of the Jews, and the crossification of Jesus will be linked to the future massacre of the Jews in concentration camps. Since this is the secondary plot in the opera, falling behind the ecstasy of Salome, the background is there make you think about the history.
In the production, I didn’t find Jokanaan’s acting believable. He was not acted like a phophet who knows thinks, believes thinks and find piece with it. He should be more pride, more distant, quiet person in my mind. However, on the stage he was always trembling, breathing very often that I didn’t understand whether he is angry, exited or tired.
Salome was a different character for all of them. A misfortunate daughter, too much loved stepdaughter, a trouble maker and a white rose reflected in a silver mirror for Narraboth. She was so complicated, we can only understand and admire her reflection, not herself. Herself, we can only find in Strauss’s music.
Some motives from the opera: