Troubled eroticism

Programme note for the Royal Opera Salome

THE POSITION OCCUPIED by Salome in the history of opera is an odd one. In so far as opera has consistently been one of the most moral of art forms, Salome can lay claim to the possibly unique distinction of being a doubly immoral work. For, in addition to the way in which Oscar Wilde’s play treats, in a spirit of rather blithe voyeurism, an exceptionally troubling story centred around decadence, incest and necrophilia (which is also associated with the foundations of Christianity), as a musical work Salome also lays itself open to the claim of exacerbating this questionable focus through its music.

In bringing to the musical re-telling of Wilde’s delicately crafted play the full armoury and persuasive powers at the disposal of a master of the post-Wagnerian orchestra, Strauss was always going to cause problems of one kind or another. At one level, the simple intensification of Wilde’s scena – for example, employing seductive music to evince emotions and sympathies that would otherwise only reluctantly be extended – was bound to trouble those for whom the dramatic staging of such ‘immoral’ content was already itself reprehensible. But at a considerably more profound level came the far heavier charge (which has stuck to this very day) that Strauss had also somehow also betrayed music itself by imbuing Wilde’s curiously lightweight drama with such extravagant intensity. For despite the weighty moral themes that converge in the play, it is in many ways a conspicuously insubstantial treatment. Not only did the student of Pater and Ruskin eschew an exploration, in any substantial sense, of the moral consequences of the story in favour of emphasizing its distinctively aesthetic character, but Wilde also in no way seems particularly keen to invite his audience’s condemnation of Herod, Salome or any other of the motley crew of, as one contemporary author put it, ‘unwholesome, unclean, hysterical or alcoholic beings, stinking of sophisticated and perfumed corruption’. Instead,Wilde’s invitation is for his audience to savour the heady aroma of self-induced moral putrefaction from a purely contemplative point of view, rather as a wine connoisseur savours the ‘noble rot’ at work behind a rich Sauternes.

Despite the opera’s huge success – it was Salome that furnished Strauss with the international reputation as a front-rank opera composer which he had long coveted – the suspicion that the composer had somehow betrayed himself in writing Salome was pervasive. Even his close friend and collaborator, Romain Rolland, allowed himself to express his disappointment at length in a letter to Strauss after hearing the work for the second time. ‘Oscar Wilde’s Salomé was not worthy of you’, he put it to the composer whom he had long supported, and even aided in preparing the French version of the libretto.

‘In spite of the pretentious affectations of the style, there is an undeniable dramatic power in Wilde’s poem; but it has a nauseous and sickly atmosphere about it: it exudes vice and literature. This isn’t a question of middle-class morality, it’s a question of health.’

Those more attuned to Wilde’s equivocal temperament also construed their disappointment in terms of a betrayal. For Robert Hirschfield, reviewing the Vienna premiere for the Wiener Abendpost, Strauss had worked against the spirit of Wilde’s play:

‘Salome as opera represents what is most annoying in art and therefore what is worst… . Annoying, because unnecessary and not generated by adequate aesthetic motives, is the musical treatment of the material, which illustrates the entire play, word for word, with music… . It is not correct, as Strauss partisans imagine, that the subject of Salome “cries to be put to music”. The music simply cried for this material.’

Hirschfield's complaint is a subtle one, contingent on concepts of art and musical works as organic unities which may not necessarily be so prevalent today as they were 100 years ago. Nonetheless, his objection to the effect that Strauss invites a degree of dramatic sympathy where none was appropriate – that is to say, appropriate according to the aesthetic nature of Wilde’s refined breed of symbolism – is highly astute, and curiously reminiscent of the objections raised by Romain Rolland. For one of the greatest merits and most troubling features of Wilde’s original is that its carefully poised aestheticism mirrors the self-indulgent and excessive immorality of the scene it depicts: the audience, delighting in the play’s exquisite textures, come in this way to glimpse their own hideous shadows at work on the stage. But what could Strauss be seeking to achieve, both men seem to ask, in this sickly dramatic realm whose aesthetic constitution repels the strong, heroic passions that burn within his music? For Rolland, the harm done by the artistic mismatch was to Strauss’s music; for Hirschfield, by contrast, it destroyed Wilde’s play. But in highlighting the collision of dramatic intention, both men single out what is perhaps the most powerful problem faced by audiences of this opera from any age: if music inevitably brings with it some kind of pity, how does it then penetrate the pitiless universe in which John the Baptist meets his horrifying fate? In other words, if music may be understood as the agent of our sympathies, how can it be employed to depict sympathy’s very absence?

The sharp end of this problem, felt as keenly by contemporary directors of Strauss’s opera as it was by Rolland and Hirschfield, concerns the treatment of the opera’s eponymous heroine. Salome, a character capable of turning her virginity into a vice and of eliciting moral disgust even from her philandering, incestuous stepfather, thirsts with infantile fascination after the only character for whom her hideously preserved beauty is meaningless. Her bondaged sexuality has no power over Jokanaan, and she has come to lust after his censure, longing not for his destruction exactly, but instead to preserve and keep for her enjoyment the very instrument of her chastisement, the mouth of her tormentor. To find sympathy – or, at bottom, to identify with – such a creature: how could this be possible? One clue is to find a parallel for Salome’s character in the troubled eroticism of Wagner’s Kundry, the heroine of Parsifal, who furnishes that work’s hero with both his downfall and his redemption. Strauss was present at the premiere of Wagner’s last operatic work in 1882, thanks to the fact that his father was playing first horn (and despite his father’s stern disapproval of Wagner, and wish for his son to avoid the ‘dangerous charms’ of Bayreuth) – the work made a deep impression on the young composer.

Kundry – who, like Salome, has biblical origins – is also a character whose undoing is delivered by a man able uniquely to resist her powerful sexuality. Unlike Salome, however, Wagner’s Kundry is a split personality, quite literally. A concoction of at least two different figures from the Grail myths, Kundry is both the pitiful servant of the master of the Holy Grail (Amfortas, the wounded ‘fisher king’), and also the magical sorceress responsible for his original downfall. In one guise, she is ugly, almost untouchable and inspires mistrust and even horror in the pure-blooded knights of the Grail realm. Here, she is also morally bound to the Grail’s fate, tied to assuaging the sickness at the heart of the Grail community, a sickness which she, in her other guise as mystical temptress, helped to bring about. In this other guise, then, Kundry is irresistible, possessed of an unquenchable beauty which, in Wagner’s version of the myth, is created and sustained by the magical power of the magician Klingsor. It is through Kundry’s irresistible beauty that Klingsor – immune to lust through castration – has entrapped Amfortas and hopes to sow ruin through the community of Grail knights, each one sworn to vows of chastity.

In this way, Parsifal dramatizes the dangerous separation of the moral and the aesthetic also at play to such a devastating degree in Salome. It is in the figure of Kundry – portrayed as an aged but sympathetic crone in the outer acts and as a beautiful enchantress in an illusory Eden in Act II – that this separation is polarized. Crucially, however, it is the reintroduction of pity in its purest form that effects the resolution of the two spheres. The wandering boy-knight Parsifal, who stumbles, in his extreme innocence, into the Grail kingdom, is able through his experience of pity to lift Amfortas’s burden and restore the Grail community to itself. And the means by which Parsifal, the ‘pure fool’ who knows nothing, comes to learn of pity? None other than through Kundry, in her guise as magical seducer, whose kiss reveals to Parsifal the nature of Amfortas’s undoing and the source of the sickness at the heart of the Holy Grail’s realm.

In much the same way as Strauss’s music for Salome,Wagner’s music for Act II of Parsifal came in for moral censure, its sticky, sicklysweet textures too overpowering for those who demanded dramatic distance from the sorcerer’s illusory confections. But it is through, as it were, our own seduction by the music as an audience that we come to partake in and identify with Parsifal’s conversion. Through our losing our footing in the magical reaches of Wagner’s tantalizing music we understand the introduction of the moral dimension into Parsifal’s consciousness. And Kundry, the very creature whose being (or half of it) is sustained by this music, is herself redeemed by the destruction of her erotic power. The primary instrument of this power, her voice, is disarmed. Transfigured through a genuine reconciliation of desire and duty, and by music of a tenderness rarely equalled, Kundry passes into silence.

Kundry’s blessed fate, of course, was never open to Salome, any more than it was possible, in the context of the opera, for Strauss to ‘redeem’ her music through something more wholesome. For Salome, product of an incestuous union and princess of a realm whose inexorable decline is already well underway, lacks the basic resources of pity. As a purely amoral creature, whose sense of others is restricted entirely to the sensual effects they have on her, Salome is bound blindly to the aestheticization of her world as bequeathed her by her parents. In this respect, she compares only to one half of Kundry, to Kundry the magical sex-slave of Wagner’s Act II. Understood thus, Salome clearly has no choice but to misinterpret the glimpsed redemption offered by the uncompromising Jokanaan, and comes instead to desire the trappings of this longed-for resolution of her desires. She longs, as it were, for the aesthetic image of moral redemption, personified by the prophet, instead of that redemption itself, simply because she has not the means to understand what Jokanaan is. Thus the beheading in Strauss’s opera becomes a literal enactment of the final, irrevocable severance of the moral from the aesthetic sphere. The drama, as it were, eats itself.

Nonetheless, as the agent for the inevitable catastrophe through which Herod’s house finally atrophies in its excess of degraded sensuality, Salome is also cast as its redeemer, just as Kundry’s seduction of Parsifal is also the agent of his, and her own, redemption. Salome is the very means through which her father’s diseased dominion is purified and laid to rest. In this respect, it is demanded that we too feel the power of her terrible beauty, that we feel the force of her character as the unfortunate product of her father’s denatured desires, so that we can identify not with her immorality, but with her complete lack of a moral compass. Thus Strauss’s music, which takes us to giddy heights in its seemingly empty virtuosity and relentless intensification of every fleeting turn of Salome’s childlike attention, comes into its own as the instrument of our entry into Herod’s palace. For the emptiness, the inauthentic excess of effect without cause that Strauss’s critics found in Salome is itself a musical dramatization of the inauthentic excess of its subject.

For audiences contemporary with Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera, the stripping of the moral dimension from art was both a novelty and answerable to a genuine need to rescue the aesthetic domain from being eclipsed by didacticism and realism. The shock, as it were, was an integral part of the style. A century later, however, when the moral content of art has consistently been ignored as an irrelevance and irritant, the challenges are different. The shock central to the rarefied pleasure of Wilde’s Salomé is now harder than ever to manufacture. But the play’s central message, in which the catastrophic implications of Wilde’s own pretended aestheticism are dramatized with merciless precision, remains as important now as it was in Wilde’s own day, if not more so. For this reason, perhaps, Strauss’s opera, often performed but for some reason by and large shielded from serious critical and interpretative attention through a mistrust of its dizzying kitsch, has come into its own. For unlike the faded sheen of Wilde’s cultured jewel of a play, the virtuosic expressionism of Strauss’s music forces itself upon its audience with irresistible power. The tragic fate of Salome is the key to understanding the meaning of the work, and it is through Strauss’s music that her tragedy may once again become true to itself.

Popular Posts