Salome gave Richard Strauss the reputation of a first-rank opera composer; Gustav Mahler called it "one of the most important works of our day". The staging's opening tableau introduces a world of debauchery. While the Tetrach and his guests savour a banquet on the upper floor, servants, guards and prostitutes wait to be summoned in a filthy kitchen downstairs. The vile atmosphere is reinforced by Es Devlin's Art-Deco-inspired designs. Salome, interpreted by Nadja Michael, is innocence, sensuality and violence. Strauss famously said the role was "written for a 16-year-old with the voice of an Isolde". David McVicar narrates the story:
The palace of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea. It is night. In the banqueting hall, Herod and his second wife Herodias entertain guests from Rome, Egypt and Jerusalem. Outside, Narraboth, the captain of the King's Guard, stares longingly in at Salome, Herod's stepdaughter. Herodias's Page, himself obsessed with Narraboth, tries to distract him, fearing that his infatuation can only bring misfortune.
From the depths of an old cistern where he has been imprisoned, the voice of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is heard by the soldiers who guard him. To them, his prophesies are incomprehensible and they warn a curious Cappadocian servant that it is forbidden for anyone to see him. Salome suddenly appears. Unable to endure the lascivious gaze of her stepfather any longer, she has fled the banquet, longing to bask in the pure rays of the moonshine. Jokanaan's voice echoes from the cistern, cursing her mother. Salome is intrigued and demands to see him, refusing Herod's order to return to the table. The soldiers refuse but Salome uses her power over the besotted Narraboth and he orders the prophet to be brought out before her. Jokanaan is dragged out of his prison and rails against the marriage of Herod and Herodias, an incestuous match made possible by the murder of Herod's brother Philip, Herodias's former husband. Salome is appalled but fascinated. Despite the frantic pleas of Narraboth, she conceives a passion for the prophet that quickly turns to an obsession. In turn, she longs to touch his body, run her fingers through his hair and finally, to kiss his mouth. The distraught Narraboth, utterly rejected, drives a dagger into his heart. Salome does not even notice, so intense is her desire to kiss the prophet. Jokanaan repulses her in disgust and commands her to seek the forgiveness of the Son of Man. Uncomprehending, Salome tries again to kiss him and he curses her before the soldiers throw him back into the cistern.
Herod now comes in pursuit of Salome, wife and guests in tow. He slips in Narraboth's blood; an ill omen that drives the paranoid Tetrarch to distraction. He denies Herodias's demands to return to the banqueting hall and orders the servants to bring food and wine. He tries to persuade Salome to join him, even offering her own mother's throne beside him, but she refuses. Jokanaan is heard again, railing against Herodias who furiously asks why Herod will not turn him over to the Temple Authorities in Jerusalem. The superstitious Herod, though himself not a Jew, prefers to keep him in captivity; he has heard rumors that this man may be the prophet Elias, returned to Earth. The Jews from Jerusalem are appalled by this suggestion and a noisy theological debate erupts between them, interrupted by Jokanaan's voice proclaiming the coming of the 'Savior'. Two guests from Nazareth interpret this to Herod. The Messiah, they say – to the amused disbelief of Herodias – has come and already is working miracles in the land, turning water to wine and raising the dead. Herod stops his ears to the prophet. He asks Salome to dance for him. Once again she declines, but he is determined and promises her whatever she desires as a reward. Salome makes him swear before the assembled guests, and despite the angry protestations of her mother, agrees. She dances before Herod. An enraptured Herod asks her to name her price. She demands to be given, on a silver dish, the head of Jokanaan. Horrified, Herod refuses, but Salome, to the delight of her mother, is adamant. In mounting panic, Herod offers Salome jewels and power, half of his kingdom, even the Veil of the Sanctuary of the Temple of Jerusalem itself. She denies him. Herod finally agrees and the Executioner, Naaman, is given the death-ring by Herodias herself. He descends into Jokanaan's prison as Salome, frantic with impatience, listens above. Hearing something fall to the ground below, she fears the Executioner's nerve has failed him and cries for help from the terrified Page and the soldiers. But she is wrong; the bloody head of Jokanaan is duly brought to her. Seizing it, she triumphantly sings to it. Jokanaan can no longer deny her the kiss she sought. As Herod climbs the stairs to his palace, Salome's longing is fulfilled. Herod pauses on the stairs and commands her death.
© Picture: Clive BardaWatch Salome, A work in progress, documentary about David McVicar's staging in Covent Garden: click here.
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