Performance Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 8 PM

The Cleveland Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
In Salome, Strauss set a scandalous libretto to some of the most incendiary and ingenious music in opera. This concert performance is a rare opportunity to hear one of music history’s most revolutionary works played by one of the world’s best orchestras, with reigning stars of the opera house Nina Stemme and Eric Owens in the lead roles.
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The Program



The Triumph of Woman

It's no accident that so much of today's popular culture is by, for, and about teenagers. Adolescence is the stage of life when the basic human urges for power, autonomy, sex, sensation, identity, and love are closest to the surface. From Sophocles in Electra to Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, from Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther to George Lucas in Star Wars, artists have  mined that rich vein of emotion to make universal statements about the human condition.

Late in the 19th century, European writers and painters of the Symbolist school discovered another teenager who appears in the Bible only briefly [Matthew 14:1-12], but long enough to inspire extravagant fantasies of sex, violence, and spirituality. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark refer to her only as "the daughter of Herodias," but the early Jewish historian Josephus provides us with her name: Salome.

It did not take long for this glimpse of a dancing princess who asked for and got the head of John the Baptist to grow, in Christian mythology, into every righteous man's worst nightmare: the murderous temptress, the evil twin to virtuous Judith, who saved her people by seducing and beheading the enemy general Holofernes. The Symbolists, obsessed with digging underneath everyday reality to find naked emotional truth, went still further. To one of them, novelist J. K. Huysmans, Salome "had always remained a dim and distant figure, lost in a mysterious ecstasy far off in the mists of time, beyond the reach of punctilious, pedestrian minds, and accessible only to brains shaken and sharpened and rendered almost clairvoyant by neurosis."

The wave of literary passion over Salome had broken and receded somewhat by the time the showman and satirist Oscar Wilde took her up in his play Salomé, written in French for the actress Sarah Bernhardt and published in 1893. Wilde changed the motivation for Salome's terrible request from a conspiracy with her mother to her own unrequited crush on the prophet. The great man is brought down not by kings or empires, but by the simplest of human urges, manifested in a teenage girl's fantasy of revenge.

Wilde's Salome is moody, balky, not even very interested in dancing until she realizes it's the way to get what she wants. She is a temptress only in the lust-clouded minds of her stepfather Herod, the young Syrian captain of the guard Narraboth, and the other men of the court. She seems unaware of sex herself, at least until her feelings coalesce around Herod's strangely magnetic prisoner. Then she becomes, as Richard Strauss would later say, "a 16-year-old with the voice of Isolde."

Strauss first encountered Wilde's play in 1902, when the Austrian poet Anton Lindner sent it to him with an offer to make an opera libretto from it. Strauss was less interested in Lindner's verses than in Wilde's original, as translated into German by Hedwig Lachmann. (Although it was ultimately necessary, as always, to trim and simplify the spoken play for operatic purposes, Salome remains a rare instance of an opera created by setting the words of the original source, without the intervention of a poet or librettist.) Summer vacation was Strauss's time to concentrate on composing; he completed most of Salome in sketch in 1904, following a successful spring tour of North America (including Cleveland), and the orchestration was finished on June 20, 1905.

Only the Dance of the Seven Veils remained to be written, and Strauss did so on August 30, while working on a French adaptation of the opera. After attending a performance of Salome, Gustav Mahler later expressed "grave doubts about the whole theme and subject matter, about the music for the dance, which we did not like, and about a great deal else … and yet the public without hesitation gave a verdict of success."

That verdict first came at the Court Theater in Dresden on December 9, 1905, after which Salome proceeded to stir up a succès de scandale everywhere it played, except in New York, where a citizens' protest against the "moral stench" of this "loathsome, abhorrent" work closed the Metropolitan Opera production after one performance.

Other observers were less concerned with the work's alleged decadence or blasphemy than they were with the question: Is it an opera? Gabriel Fauré was among the first, and certainly not the last, to call Salome "a symphonic poem with voices added." Before entering the opera house, Strauss had been famous for his big orchestral works, many of which, such as Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and Don Quixote, told vivid stories without using words. He took satisfaction in the large role of the orchestra in Salome and his next opera, Elektra. "That these 'symphonies' convey the kernel of the dramatic content," he wrote, "will perhaps be completely understood by our successors."

And yet Strauss begins this orchestrally ambitious work in the most modest way imaginable-no grand overture or even an orchestral prelude, just a quick rising scale on the clarinet, leading to Narraboth's opening line, "Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!" ("How beautiful the Princess Salome is tonight!"). Talk about the kernel of the dramatic content! The entire action flows from this simple observation, and so seamlessly that Strauss can keep us in our seats for nearly two hours without an act break. (That may not be much to ask of today's movie-going audiences, but it was audacious in the opera houses of 1905.)

At several fateful moments in that action, the singers fall silent and Strauss lets the orchestra tell what's going on. The first such moment comes when Narraboth, against his better judgment, yields to Salome's request and has the prophet Jochanaan brought out of the cistern where he is imprisoned, to agitated music expressing the girl's excitement and the captain's anxiety. After the prophet rejects Salome's advances, it is in a solely orchestral passage that we hear the crucial turn in the drama; the disappointment of the rejected Salome turns, before our ears, into a deadly lust for revenge, as the music of her demand for the prophet's head is heard for the first time.

And then, of course, there is the Dance, the moment when Salome first asserts her womanly powers. Having reluctantly granted Herod's request to dance, she then silences the orchestra, which had swung into a sort of boom-boom stripper tune; she is a woman, after all, and likes a little time to get in the mood. Her music is at first rather mild and conventional-this must be the part that failed to please Mahler, that lover of passionate chromaticismbut eventually builds to an incandescent climax, with Salome's personal leitmotif, a sort of raptor's squawk with a falling note, hovering in triumph over it all. Although he made some notes to himself about the action of this dance, Strauss published no stage directions for it, and what actually takes place onstage at this turning point in the drama has been entirely left up to the performer and the directorand, in a concert performance such as this one, the listener's imagination.

Speaking of leitmotifs, one should note that Strauss dips lightly into this Wagnerian technique of composition, being far more likely to associate a musical motive with a character than with an object or a concept, as Wagner does in his Ring cycle. It makes as much sense to think of this music in symphonic terms and of Strauss as using the technique of "developing variation" of themes that he inherited from Beethoven and Brahms. In any case, the work's vivid musical themes do not require much explication as they resound in our consciousness, shifting in tone and shape according to the currents of the drama.

Strauss's gift for musical characterization is evident throughout the work. The music of the prophet Jochanaan is sturdy and righteous, devoid of the other characters' tortured dissonances, and his voicebooming from the cistern like an oracleis magnified by a tam-tam in the orchestra. At the other extreme, the Jews at Herod's court provide comic relief with their endless theological debates in learned counterpoint. (Sadly, knowledge of Strauss's later modus vivendi with the Nazi regime makes it hard to enjoy this bit of amiable parody.)

Ultimately, although the practical-minded Strauss did not at all mind people buying tickets by the thousands to see sensational events enacted onstage, he was up to something else in Salome. He had placed musicthe most symbolic of the artsat the service of the Symbolist quest for truths that transcend reality. To prevent Salome's final monologue with the head of Jochanaan from becoming just a disgusting spectacle, or a squalid image of a deluded girl who caused a heinous moral wrong, he had to write transcendent music for it. And write it he did, inviting us to witness the triumph of Woman over all the powers of this world and the next.

© 2012 David Wright 

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Robert L. Turner and Mr. and Mrs. Daniel R. Lewis in support of the 2011-2012 season. The Trustees also gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Jean Stein, whose contribution honors the memory of Edward W. Said and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

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