RICHARD STRAUSS attended the theatrical production of Oscar Wilde’s drama Salome at Max Rheinhard’s theater in Berlin with Gerthrud Eisoldt in the title role. After the performance the composer met his friend, violoncellist Heinrich Gruenfeld, who promptly commented: “Strauss, here is an opera plot for you.” The idea appealed to Strauss and he expressed his readiness to begin immediately. It was oneact opera and it was completed within two years 1903-1905.
The premiere at the Dresden Court Opera Theater in 1905 did not become a “debacle”, but elicited a forecast that interest in it would be shortlived and incidental. Keiser Wilhelm II, on his part, expressed concern: „I feel sorry for Strauss for writing this Salome – he told his quartermaster, – otherwise I am fond of Strauss but he will only do himself harm with it“. In Breslau the opera had unexpected success, whereas in New York the “moralists” and the purists removed it from the stage. Eventually, Salome made Strauss rich and he managed to build a villa for himself at Garmisch Partenkirchen.
The Austrian premiere, at the Graz Opera Theater, was attended by Arnold Schoenberg, Giacomo Puccini, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler.
The dramatic action in the opera, very accurately called by Romaine Rolland “a monstrous masterpiece”, takes place at the palace of Herod Antipas during his reign in Judea. Salome, Herod’s step daughter is enthralled with the beauty of John the Baptist and is consumed with lust for him. When John repels her passion, she conceives ambition to have her revenge on him. Salome begins to flatter Herod and dances the „Dance of the seven veils“, requiring in return the head of John on a platter. The final scene, which centres around Salome’s monologue with John’s cut head, is of ambiguous impact. Musicologist Joseph Kerman recognized Strauss for his musical and technical mastery, but called the scene “banal” in terms of musical impact. Norman Del Mar a biographer of Richard Strauss and conductor of his music described the opera as “a hideous hysterical triumph that leaves one with a repulsive flavour.” Elsewhere, the final scene was defined as “psychopathic love death, exceeding the dramatic consequences of words.”
After the execution, Salome, holding John’s cut head, sings ecstatically in the high register: “Ah! You wouldn’t kiss me, John! I shall kiss him now!” The manic personality of Salome is revealed in this monologue lasting nearly twenty minutes the fluctuation of her moods from pronounced tenderness, passing through lust, anger and malice until the final plunge into madness. Witnessing the scene are Herod, Herodias and the executioners. Herod, after the kiss on the lips of John’s dead head, exclaims: “She is a monster!” The scene is accompanied by natural symbolism: the moon passes behind a cloud, which was assumed by Herod to be a Godsent eclipse. He orders his soldiers to extinguish the torches and in the ensuing darkness weeps aloud saying: “A terrible thing has happened!” Salome sings her last confession that she has kissed the lips of dead John. Then the moon comes out from behind the cloud to illuminate these developments. Terrified at the scene, Herod orders his soldiers to kill Salome. These incidents are depicted by way of strong dynamic levels in the orchestra.
Although Salome belongs to the opera genre, no choir is featured in it. The performing cast is brought down to fifteen soloists and the orchestra.