Violins, Veils, Tears


A favorite moment in C# minor, when Jochanaan rejects Salome and returns to his cistern

Grand Opera is a rich tapestry of not just the work itself but also any given opera’s reception and performance history. The story of Richard Strauss’s Salome is especially relevant both to political freedom and musical evolution: Oscar Wilde was in jail for “Gross indecency with men” at the time of the debut of Wilde’s play Salome (and future Strauss libretto); Arnold Schoenberg, Giacomo Puccini, Alban Berg, and Gustav Mahler were at the Austrian premiere in 1907; the opera was banned in various places; the chromatic and even polytonal harmony has vexed music theorists for a century; even last night at the Met the audience got to enjoy the mildly lewd question of, “Are we going to see the star get naked?”

Great art remains timeless. Strauss’s music is mostly sublime and Wilde’s pre-Freudian family psychodrama rings disturbingly true. Indeed, while looking at rich and fat Herodes (wonderful Gerhard Siegel) in charge of his amoral family, it was impossible not to think of a pack of Trumps a few blocks away in their Tower.

The flaw in the opera is the “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Strauss’s music is frankly crass Orientalism, and the final effect is really no more profound than the obligatory “underworld characters in a Moscow strip club” scene found in most modern action movies. Still, Patricia Racette danced with grace.

More importantly, Racette sang and and acted this role of roles with beauty and fire. Jürgen Flimm’s production (designed by Santo Loquasto) was solid and professional. A new touch were grim and silent winged figures that slowly gathered after Salome’s demand for a head on a charger. These harbingers of death were especially effective in concord with James F. Ingalls’s superb lighting. In the pit 105 musicians unified under Johannes Debus.

Everyone should see Grand Opera at least once a year, there’s nothing else like it. Salome runs though December 28. Many thanks to Met percussionist Jason Haaheim, who also appears in a previous post about Elektra at the Met.