“I don’t know how you can go to an opera,” my grown-up nephew said. “A play, OK; a movie, fine. But opera?”
“It’s a show. It’s fun,” I replied. “There’s music, movement, action, drama, costumes. It’s like a kids’ show for grown-ups.”
But after spending a night with Richard Strauss’s ‘Salome’ at the Tel-Aviv Opera I’m beginning to see my nephew’s point. There were costumes, yes. We had lust, sex and violence, which are all well and good in their place. But music? I’m not too sure about that.
I’m familiar with some of Strauss’s orchestral music (Til Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, Thus Spake Zarathustra), and even with his very beautiful ‘Last Songs.’ But apart from the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ near the end of the opera, there was very little in it that could be defined as tuneful. Sure, the orchestral parts were pleasant, and well played by the Rishon Letzion orchestra, but the vocal parts were very difficult to enjoy if not downright painful to the ear.
The story of Salome asking King Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a silver salver as her reward for dancing for him was taken from the Apocrypha and turned into a play by Oscar Wilde. He wrote the original text in French, but Strauss took the German translation as the basis for his opera. According to the story, Salome’s mother, Herodias, was married to Herod, who in turn lusted after Salome, who herself lusted after John the Baptist, and thus all kinds of dark currents swirl around on the stage and in the music.
The orchestration is rich and emotive, as is customary with Strauss, but the solo parts tend to devolve into mutual haranguing and screeching, whether between Salome and her mother, or both of them and Herod, with nothing in the way of harmony or beauty to be found in any of the characters or the music Strauss has written for them. As for Salome’s famous Dance of the Seven Veils, which is supposed to be a kind of erotic display, possibly ending with full frontal nudity (I had been looking forward to that) turned out to consist of some very tame gyrations, performed mainly by several apparently a-sexual or bi-sexual attendants of Salome assuming animalistic postures. At this point the music was the best part of the show.
The opera ends with Salome kissing the Baptist’s severed head, something which is obviously intended to arouse disgust, and in this the production succeeded. An additional final flourish consisted of having Salome’s white robe stained with the blood that had dripped from the decapitated body. At least that added a splash of colour to an otherwise drab stage.
The production we saw, directed by prominent Israeli actor Itai Tiran, was imaginative and somber, as befits the subject-matter, but who wants to spend an evening being depressed, demoralized and tortured? Not me, for sure.
At least the next opera in our subscription series is Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball.’ I know that the story also has its melodramatic side, but at least one can expect the music to be more melodic, and the staging to contain something more colourful than various shades of black and grey.