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Salome

Salome is about religion.

There, I said it. Because it needs to be said; because religion gets utterly marginalized every time Salome comes to town, and journalists (whether late hipster aspirants or the mainstream establishment) wander through the work saying "whatever" to all that Biblical stuff, ultimately wanting to know how much skin we see after the seventh veil, and whether Jokanaan's decapitated head would meet Madame Tussaud's approval. This matches the rallying cry of much media consumption today, which basically asks, when do we get to see all that sex and blood you promised, and could somebody please tell that religious fanatic in the dungeon to shut up?

Quite an irony there. These shrugs at the modern productions of Salome are no different than Oscar Wilde's original scenario for the Tetrarch's essentially areligious court (or at least a superstitious one lacking any monotheistic moral order). The characters lack faith in anything much more than themselves, yet from Princess Salome's ironical innocence, a healthy objectivity intervenes. And of course, that is the stuff of a great protagonist, who can drive a dramatic structure of conflict, discovery, and tragedy.

To be clearer: I don't think that Oscar Wilde wrote the play cackling by candlelight in anticipation of a glorious slaughter to silence the Baptizer, and a cast of characters to make it happen. No less, Richard Strauss' intentions sing clear through his music: When Jokanaan, and later the two disciples, describe a man at Galilee, we hear the epic strains of Wagnerian leitmotif -- not parody, and not judgment. Had Strauss meant to tinge this evangelistic moment with irony, he would have done so with all his master skill. Instead, he conveys the transcendent heft that we could hear last weekend in his Four Last Songs.

Salome does not have the hots for Jokanaan. She hears him berating her parents all day long, but like most tweens would, she probably rather likes that. So she is not a cunning little vixen intent on avenging the Baptist for all his fire and brimstone against her incestuous royal family. All the same, she knows that the Baptist's vitriol is grouped against her, too, and his wholesale judgment eggs her on as an innocent. Importantly, Wilde surrounds the Princess with admirers who are ready to throw themselves at her (and eventually, over a cliff), but Salome wants Jokanaan. In the Washington National Opera production that opened last night, director Francesca Zambello adds a clever stage direction that I have not once seen in a dozen or so productions around the world (and this is an opera worthy of pilgrimage!):  After Jokanaan descends back into the dungeon, some guards sexually assault her.  This is critical and rare because it feeds the central dramatic idea of the scene: That the world waiting for the Princess after all those seven veils come off is ultimately predatory.  Jokanaan pronounces a damning moral order upon the Princess and her court, but that promised land of wrath could seem indistinguishable to her from the vultures circling overhead, or grabbing at her body, or ogling her from the throne.

It's a well-known hermeneutic detail among Christians that there was some ambiguity early on about who the Messiah would be, or should be: Jokanaan, or Jesus. (Martin Scorsese portrays this theological confrontation elegantly in his pinnacle masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ.)  Jokanaan famously pontificated, "Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." And of course, Jesus changed the subject to, "Love one another."

Trust me, this blog is not a Bible study. What I find so prescient, though, is Wilde's artful creation of the dread in Salome's world that cries out for grace -- literally, for Jesus more than Jokanaan. Wilde inserts a brief scene of loudly debating rabbis, which usually results in caricature onstage that I find insensitive (and this production is no exception); but that dynamic of passionate debate was quite real at the time, built on centuries of defining who should be the Messiah. Surely the most gentle way that Christianity confronts this question vis-à-vis the Judaic heritage is not to say that the old religion needed to be replaced by the new religion, but rather that the time had arrived for "love one another" to surpass all the former legalism.

And yet, at the dramatic climax of the opera, Salome sings that "the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death." Thus the great enigma of Wilde's and Strauss' Salome is that she felt drawn most to the man who berated her, unattainable. She reflects to his severed head that the Baptist would have loved her, if only he really looked at her -- and this moment has nothing to do with lust. Perhaps the Princess of so few years had enough wisdom to dismay the areligious world she knew, awakened by hearing Jokanaan's crude litanies of moral order. Perhaps Jokanaan, no matter that he faithfully "prepared the way," represented the failed old guard of legalism; that he would suffer from this imprisonment, let alone from knowing that he wasn't meant to be "the one," is the stuff of great drama.

We know enough from the essential bits and pieces of Oscar Wilde's biography to find it peculiar that he would send his heroine so relentlessly in pursuit of the moralizing Baptist's acceptance. Of course, that kind of agnosticism is the discipline of any literary genius, but I have long suspected more purpose in the playwright here. As surely as "the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death," there are certain things about love that transcend gender, circumstance, and morality.  It desires perfect control, and a taste of paradise that is not to be found in a predatory world.  Yet, the physical mechanism of love itself...is predatory after all.  This paradox, the true "voice crying out in the desert," has been the stuff of much poetic rumination -- think of Johnny Cash and his progeny Nick Cave, whose "murder ballads" find spiritual resonance in the scene of Salome planting her lips onto the severed head of Jokanaan.  It is not so simple as the adage, "can't love 'em, can't shoot 'em."  Infinitely more complex is the dilemma that we will spend life pursuing self-fulfillment -- these days, more than ever -- yet we may, at Salome's young age or after a long life of searching, find that our Self is the Devil.  For that, I'll just cue Lars Von Trier's brilliant newest film Antichrist (streams via Netflix) and let it go.

The quick parting thought is:  Whether or not you take this not-often opportunity to see and hear Salome onstage, there is a priceless jewel in the canon of interpretations that you can experience at home.  In 1974, German director Götz Friedrich defied the convention of merely filming a stage production, and shot this opera as a work of through-composed cinema, on a controlled set using 35mm film and multiple camera edits.  Teresa Stratas sang the titular role, on par with Deborah Voigt or better, but with a physical authenticity to age and beauty that is unsurpassed.  Just recently, the film was lovingly restored onto DVD, at the same time as another film from the same production team, of the subsequent and very similar opera from Strauss' opus, Elektra.

Tickets are still available to the remaining performances of Salome, and if you haven't purchased tickets from the Washington National Opera since September 1 of last year, use Referral Code 522567 after clicking here for a 25% discount on up to four tickets.

Classical WETA's Nicole Lacroix interviews Deborah Voigt about Salome:

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