“Yet he was drawn from the smooth crown of the locust into Herod’s nest, the palace of lust, a teen-age dance. She encircled him and he lost his head.” - Patti Smith, Auguries of Innocence
Organ pipes loom over the stage like a menacing silver sky in which seven metallic moons are suspended over a stage of wood and steel. The sky of swords and the scrap metal moons shine a brilliant cold light onto five figures cloaked in black who huddle in silence atop an immense and veiled column before dispersing and seating themselves high above and to the right of the stage. Their silent departure ignites the orchestra. The ritual begins.
The moons shining in a sky of swords hover indifferently over Narraboth and the Page as they tread nervously over the subterranean prison of Jochanaan, John the Baptist. The cistern where he is kept may be hidden below them, but it is focus of the spectacle. It mediates between the real time of the ritual story and the timelessness of the orchestra pit. When Jochanaan speaks, his prison burns with a soft light that surrounds him like a halo. When he is silent, he is devoured by complete and quiet darkness. Thus enshrouded, the echo of his words still elicits convulsions and twitches from those whose feet weigh down his prison door.
The doleful moan of an oboe snakes up from the mumbling of the orchestra and, like antique silver crashing down a forgotten staircase, tumbles with Narraboth’s words as he sings “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht.” Dressed in a black robe with a turquoise band painted across her eyes, the page prophesies disaster in tones to dissuade Narraboth from glaring at Salome. Like a cloud of mist, she floats slowly and suddenly into the space and absorbs the cold silver of the moon and the sky of swords. The frost of winter and the white glare of summer seethe beneath her diaphanous blue skin. Her voice, forged from the same cool metal of the seven moons, is pulsed to life by the primordial bubbling of the orchestra. She appears as if summoned by the wind caused by Jochanaan’s outbursts and she demands to see the prisoner who speaks against her mother and whose echoing words have called her forth. From the honey venom of her voice she weaves a sticky silver web of promises to ensnare Narraboth. If he will let her see Jochanaan Salome will give him smile at him through her veil or she will drop a flower just for him tomorrow. Narraboth’s red-hot resistance is cooled by the princess’s icy glare, and he hastens to the cistern to bring Jochanaan up into their world.
The prisoner ascends the stairs into the cool moonlight. It shines onto his pitiful, soft form: he is a disheveled middle-aged man. The knots and snags that are his black hair cascade over the dirty rags that hang on his body. Salome has never seen a man like him before. His body and mind are untouched by the decadence of her stepfather’s court with its people hiding their ugliness and ugly intentions behind robes, bracelets, peacocks and power. Her voice and emotions, dulled and stunted by a lifetime of extravagance and drowned in a sea of yesses, are conjured into being by this man’s peculiar body and shattering voice.
Salome wants him to look at her and notice her. She tries to use the same impartial, wandering chords and languid vocal line with which she manipulated Narraboth to attract Jochanaan’s attention. If only he would turn his head toward her, he would love and desire her, as everyone else has and does. “Ich bin Salome, der Tochter der Herodias,” Salome sings but Jochanaan takes command of Salome’s wayward music and drives the current of the orchestra into a tempest. He roars and threatens her with the heavy chains tied around his wait. No one has ever denied her before and the rejection only kindles her desire. Raised in a world of poses and phrases, she has never heard anyone speak with such honesty and conviction before. The bored nonchalance and haughtiness of her music is thawed by Jochanaan’s incandescent passion. The throbbing of the orchestra beneath her brightens and swells and she is transformed. She professes her love for Jochanaan with a new voice, in a new language. For the first time, Salome isn’t the passive object of desire. For the first time, she understands how it feels to yearn for release. Jochanaan hesitates—he is human, after all—but he obliterates each Salome’s lusty effusions. Each time he denies her, her voice gets stronger. She is powered not merely by a desire to get what she wants, but by a warm gentleness that seethes beneath Jochanaan’s fire and brimstone. He soothes Salome with promises of a savior who will bring a new world and will bring the truth that will wash away the grimy smiles and the false eyes of her world. But Salome cannot yet hear Jochanaan’s music, and he casts her aside in disgust and frustration, covering her in her moon-colored cloak before rushing back to the darkness underground.
Salome and Jochanaan are in touch with something deeper and unseen. He is connected to God and a world of light and she is the moon’s double. They are outsiders in the physical space of the ritual where the corporeal, the empirical, the easily understood and the superficial reign through Herod, his cynical wife Herodias, the lusty weakness of Narraboth and the bickering of the five priests.
Herod, Herodias, Narraboth and the five Jewish high priests sing, but what they say and how they say it is artificial. Herod greases his way through the music in vulgar waltzes and grotesque gesticulation. His wife guffaws and nags at him in a voice of treacherously magnetic metal. Their gestures and words are similar but they do not listen and do not understand one another. Even the five priests, who are the voices of God on earth, do nothing more than compete with one another in a high-lying and disconnected counterpoint that evades harmony and cadence. After Jochanaan rejects Salome, she retreats inside herself, marveling at this knowledge of a new world and trying to understand the changes happening inside her. While Salome molts in the corner, Herodias and Herod dominate with their bicker and superstitions.
Frustrated that Salome has withdrawn from the party, Herod implores Salome to dance for him. She refuses in blanched, irritated phrases until he promises to give her whatever she desires if she will only dance for him. His music is covered in the slime of artifice, but Salome is now intrigued by his offer. “Anything?” She asks him. “Anything!” He responds. She agrees and begins to dance. The orchestra bangs and thrusts with savage rhythm and Salome’s body responds. She flies and flitters on top of the cistern. She ways her hips to anachronistic waltzes and convulses to hair-singeing tremoli. It’s an awkward, unrefined choreography of spasms, thrusts and leaps. She doesn’t move from a desire to please Herod but from an intuitive need to use her body to express herself and to spend the mysterious anxiety and strange desires burning inside her. The orchestra accelerates and swarms of chords bang and grind against one another, driving Salome and Herod to separate climaxes.
Herod is satisfied, and Salome is ready to collect her reward. She demands Jochanaan’s severed head presented to her on a silver platter. Herod is horrified. He balks and refuses. The five priests rise in protest. Herod offers Salome jewels, his white peacocks and the holy veil of the temple in place of the prophet’s head, easily gotten material goods that cannot satisfy Salome’s craving. Herod is convinced that Herodias has told Salome to make this outrageous demand as vengeance for Jochanaan’s slander against her, but Salome insists, “I don’t listen to my mother. Give me the head of Jochanaan!” Having sworn an oath, Herod cannot refuse and so gives the command for Jochanaan to be beheaded, washing his hands of all guilt.
Salome’s eyes shine with desire and anticipation as the slave descends to the cistern with a gleaming silver sword heavy in his hands. The orchestra is silent except for a faintly audible grumbling and a sudden and sharp pang. Salome is frantic. Will the slave kill him or not? Why doesn’t Jochanaan make a sound? She screams and races around the stage. Jochanaan kneels next to the executioner, his decrepit form bathed in gold. The light disappears and the cistern is swallowed by darkness. The slave emerges from the darkness of the cistern and the silver light of the moon reflects onto the silver platter that presents Jochanaan’s severed head. And now, the princess who has been spent her life in studied poses unleashes her desires in a world of sound. The effusions are parallel to Jochanaan’s prophetic outbursts. Jochanaan, the truth teller and the seer, has given Salome a language and grammar in which she can express her newfound awakening, but Salome’s flames leap higher, their red and blue peaks reaching upward toward the sky of silver swords and scrap metal moons. Holding the head of Jochanaan aloft, she screams at him for refusing to look at her for if he had only looked at her, he would have fallen in love her. The music hardens and softens as fast as her emotions change. She sings with a voice that is steel and unbreakable one minute and the next like a silk rose. Salome has taken control of the orchestra. She commands the movements of the moon. Herod and the five priests are no longer in control; the ritual is in Salome’s hands. All are at the mercy of the princess who has learned the answers to the riddles of love, life, death and God which they can barely fathom. In a moment of repose, Herod tries to regain control, but his wife just laughs at him and refuses to join him in surrender behind the castle walls.
Salome thrusts her face onto the dead man’s head, smearing her lips with the bitter taste of his blood. “Is that blood? They say that love has a bitter taste. But what does it matter? I have kissed your mouth!” Salome sings triumphantly having taken control of the action and shamefully expressing her agency by finally joining her lips with the blue blood-spattered lips of a prophet. Her revolt against the order is too much to tolerate, and Herod regains sovereignty. He orders her to be killed and the five priests, having observed the revolution, swarm around her calmly and with intent while the orchestra crushes Salome, shrouding her voice and her body, and silencing the orchestra. The light of the moons is extinguished and the ritual ends, for now.
A prose essay written after the following performance of Richard Strauss’s SALOME.
THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA and OPERA PHILADELPHIA
SALOME: Camilla Nylund
JOCHANAAN: Alan Held
HEROD: John Mac Master
HERODIAS: Birgit Remmert
NARRABOTH: Andrew Staples
HERODIAS’S PAGE: Cecelia Hall
FIRST JEW: Dominic Armstrong
SECOND JEW: Roy Hage
THIRD JEW: Joseph Gaines
FOURTH JEW: Corey Bix
FIFTH JEW: Nicholas Masters
FIRST NAZARENE: Wayne Tigges
SECOND NAZARENE/CAPPODOCIAN: Eric Dubin
FIRST SOLIDER: Keith Miller
SECOND SOLDIER: Donovan Singletary
A SLAVE: Allison Sanders
Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Directed by Kevin Newbury