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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Dancing the Seven Veils

Salome on stage

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Richard Strauss’ Salome is one of the world's great operas, combining the last remnants of 19th-century Romanticism with a ravishing score, seeped in late- Viennese tradition but with the bite of the emerging 20thcentury trend toward harsher realism. Strauss’ glorious score transforms the sexual decadence and social depravity of the source material into a breathtaking harmonic outpouring of frenzied erotic frustration that can only self-destruct, conjuring up the awesome trappings of “terror and pity” that underline Aristotelian tragedy.

The music is expressively melodious and carefully banks its resources within a seductive yet surprisingly subdued lyricism. Salome encompasses the torrent of high drama while leaning only slightly toward modern dissonance.

The score remains a towering one-act powerhouse of relentless momentum, faithful to the post-Wagnerian German musical tradition while updating its parameters. The music uses its 100-piece orchestra to overwhelm the listener with sumptuous aural splashes of color, rich in polyphonic harmonics, yet transparent and light-textured enough to allow audiences to savor the exotic opulence of each character’s leitmotif while unifying them within a hypnotic musical framework.

Head of the Prophet
The famous story of Salome demanding the head of John the Baptist as reward for the dance of the seven veils relies heavily on the Oscar Wilde play, which fabricated this scenario from a mere mention of beheading in Scriptures. The opera was damned by critics at its 1905 debut and banned in Vienna and New York, but became an instant popular success. The score doesn’t suggest Salome as a sexstarved kitten, but as a woman awed by the holy world of the Baptist, a world she knows naught of and is so impervious to her eroticism that it triggers a transcendent yearning in her own nature, which she cannot fully grasp or control. The corruption of Herod’s court and its prevailing decadence has long bored Salome, for whom the contrast with this man so holy, so beautiful, so obsessed with his own spirituality and impervious to mere flesh, overwhelms her on sight.

In the only exchange between Salome and the Baptist, she extols first his white body, then his hair and finally his lips, but as he rejects each blandishment in sequence, she lashes out in an eloquent turnabout at his putrid body, his dirty hair, his foul lips. Still, the die is cast. Her obsession has no recourse. The ominous signs of her demand for the Baptist’s head emerge as a grizzly token of her unconsummated desire.

Sympathy for Salome?
For all the obvious sensationalism of an opera in which the audience anticipates a dismembered head, Strauss’ score opts for sympathy for Salome. Disgusted with the corruption of Herod’s court, Salome has in fact renounced the worldly goods offered by Herod and has inadvertently caught the core of John the Baptist’s spirituality. Her erotic desire has been transformed into a horrible asceticism matching the Baptist’s own religious intensity.

The dance itself is far from sensuous, a subdued ritualistic piece sounding more ominous than erotic. The conclusion of the dance followed by Herod’s final frantic effort to get Salome to change her mind leads to a long subdued passage reflecting the horror of her unshakeable resolution— a resolution that bespeaks the desperation within her sexual obsession. As the executioner emerges from the cistern bearing the head, Salome’s burst of ecstasy is so overwhelming, and Strauss’ famous rendition of the final scenes so devastatingly magnetic, that the audience is caught up in her exultation despite their horror. They are on her side. The tragedy has come full circle.

Although it is fashionable to describe this tumultuous final scene as Strauss’ unparalleled assay into sexual frenzy, the score suddenly becomes ominously subdued as Salome almost whispers, “I have kissed thy mouth.” Strauss reaches into the subterranean chasm of Salome’s soul, conjuring up the dark cistern where the Baptist had been imprisoned, accompanying her with quiet woodwinds and plunging the vocal score into a low, almost unsingable G-flat. Salome solemnizes her passion into something shocking but awesome.

Strauss never quite matched the rapturous glory of this final scene. The tragedy of Salome is not simply one of unrequited passion but of the revelation of the depths to which human emotion can transform our inner natures, driving them into undiscovered territory. For all of the terror in Strauss’ masterwork, Salome remains unsullied by her own obsession and accepts her punishment for having broken the taboo separating the living from the dead.

The Florentine Opera performs Salome Feb. 15-17 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.