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The legend of "Salome" derives from a sparse Biblical account of the decadent stepdaughter of Herod, Tetrach of Judea, and her shocking insistence upon the beheading of St. John the Baptist. In the original Gospel story, Salome was depicted very briefly as an amoral adolescent who demands the Prophet's head on a charger, essentially to fulfill a request of her affronted and vengeful mother.
In the operatic version, taken from a much-expanded concept developed by playwright, Oscar Wilde, a more or less psychopathic Salome demands the decapitation of the holy man, both as revenge against one who has spurned her shamelessly immoral propositions, and as an ultimate test of the limits of her stepfather's lascivious desires, a direct trade-off for her acquiescence to his continuing, perverted sexual advances.
The entire opera takes place in one Act, set at the palace of Herod in approximately 30 A.D. The scene opens on the moonlit terrace of Herod's banquet hall. Narraboth, the young captain of the guards sings passionately of his love for the exotic young woman, Salome, who revels inside the hall with the other banquet guests.
From within the palace the sounds of merriment and celebration echo forth, but from below ground, from the depths of a cistern, reverberates the voice of John the Baptist, prophesying the impending proclamation of the Messiah promised to the Jews.
Salome rushes onto the terrace, attracted by the manly sound emanating from the underground prison. In short order, she manipulates the emotionally vulnerable Narraboth into bringing the prisoner out for her inspection.
Even in his shabby, ragged state, the prophet Jokanaan carries himself with noble bearing as he denounces the decadence of his captors and foretells their impending doom. Jokanaan's powerful curse of her parents delights the perverse Salome, and she becomes increasingly convinced she must find a way to seduce him. Climbing to an ever higher key signature she sings, "I want to kiss your mouth, Jokanaan," to the disgust of the Prophet.
Overwhelmed by absolute rejection and the girl's outrageous perversion, Narraboth commits suicide on the spot. Intent upon eliciting a response from Jokanaan, Salome offers not even a glance in Narraboth's direction. With a final warning, the holy man returns to his cell.
Meanwhile, banquet guests begin pouring onto the terrace where Herod literally slips and slides through Narraboth's blood. Her stepfather offers Salome a bite of fruit, saying he wants to put his mouth where hers has been. Herodias, the girl's mother remonstrates in anger at her husband's incestuous suggestion and, hearing the ominous tones of Jokanaan's denunciation from the pit below, demands of Herod why he hasn't turned the prisoner over to the Jews.
Five Jews immediately step forward to reiterate the question, exposing Herod's growing fear of this Prophet and of God's probable retribution should the holy man come to harm. The energetic and satiric ensemble recapitulate their demands of an exasperated Herod, until the commanding voice of Jokanaan silences their argument. The Tetrach's trepidation increases as his wife boils in rage at the saint's prophecy of her personal damnation.
Anxious to ignore the explosive controversy, Herod turns to Salome, asking her to dance before him. Herodias' anger peaks as she forbids such a performance. Salome acts noncommittal, uninspired. Herod, however, continues with the proposition, offering various sorts of tempting rewards. Finally, the girl agrees. On the condition, she says, that when she has finished Herod will grant her any wish she might make. Herod seals the bargain as a foreboding wind swirls over the assemblage and he wrenches a wreath of blossoms from his head, crying out that they burn him.
The "Dance of the Seven Veils" proceeds. Salome provides the sensuous, decadent performance Herod has requested, then throws herself at his feet, sweetly and solemnly demanding her payment: the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Horrified, Herod offers every alternative he can think of. Herodias, meanwhile, takes absolute delight in Salome's choice of a prize. Finally, a very frightened yet beaten Herod sends his ring to the prison guard, commanding Jokanaan's execution by beheading.
As the assassination proceeds down below, Salome impatiently demands a swift end for the Prophet. And, when soldiers appear with the severed head, she sweeps up her prize and sings with delirious triumph that she has him at last, this man who rejected her. Extending the bloody head before her, she slobbers with psychopathic sensuality over the disembodied skull, then kisses the Prophet's dead lips. At last completely revolted, Herod orders the soldiers to kill her and they close in to crush her with their shields.
Richard Strauss (Bio)
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