Sunday 11 December 2016

Salome, Wilde and Strauss

Wilde complained to me one day that someone in a well-known novel had stolen an idea of his. I pleaded in defence of the culprit that Wilde himself was a fearless literary thief. "My dear fellow," he said, with his usual drawling emphasis, "when I see a monstrous tulip with four wonderful petals in someone else's garden, I am impelled to grow a monstrous tulip with five wonderful petals, but that is no reason why someone should grow a tulip with only three petals." THAT WAS OSCAR WILDE.

Robert Ross

Patricia Racette in the Met's 2016 production
Last week, the Secret Victorianist visited the Metropolitan Opera in New York to see Patricia Racette as the eponymous character in Strauss’s 1905 Salome.

The opera, which is performed in German, is based on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play of the same name — a play written in French, banned by the censors and famously illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley in the first English version (1894).

Beardsley's illustrations
Originally deemed shocking for its overt sexuality and liberal depiction of Biblical characters, it was from accusations of plagiarism that Robert Ross defended the play in his Note on the text in 1912. For Ross, Wilde’s freedoms with his sources, such as conflating the Biblical Herods, are necessary for artistic innovation and literary thievery is acceptable as long as improves the sources it plunders. I couldn’t help but wonder then what Wilde might have made of Strauss’s opera and the Met’s current production.

For an opera, Salome is incredibly true to the play it is based on — from the lyrics that the performers sing, to the reactions it invokes. Beheadings still fascinate and appall, erotic dances titillate. Even today the opera still has the ability to shock — not just through the fleeting full frontal nudity, but also in the sense of danger that pervades, in the story, yes, but also in the staging and the music.

Beardsley's illustrations
What has changed perhaps is our response to Jochanaan. When once audiences and readers baulked at the combination of eroticism with their own religion, today, sitting watching in Manhattan, it’s hard not to find John the Baptist’s prophecies as alien and unsettling as the play’s more pagan symbolism.  It’s easy to imagine that for early audiences Jochanann and Salome were two great oppositional forces, carrying almost equal sway, but today’s Salome is undoubtedly dominated by its titular character.

At only one act, this is one of the shorter operas I’ve seen, but one that draws you in to a discordant and unsettling world. I only wished the Met’s production could have staged the moon that dominates Wilde’s imagining of Herod’s court, Beardsley’s illustrations and the singers’ words:

Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb.  She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.

Do you know of any NYC productions you think the Secret Victorianist should watch? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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