The biblical story of Salome remains deeply scandalous. Here was the daughter of Herodias who danced her charged erotic Dance of the Seven Veils and then, with her mother’s coercion, asked for the head of John the Baptist because she had ensnared the king’s favour and possibly his illict desire.
Oscar Wilde famously elaborated upon the biblical story in his 1891 play which provocatively ramped up the eroticism of the story: in his highly stylised version Salome is sexually derious of John the Baptist and at the drama’s culmination, when the femme fatale par excellence is offered the head of the saint on a platter, she kisses it in a final act of gruesome possession.
Wilde’s Salome was banned in Britain by Lord Chamberlain, so outrageous was it deemed in its representation of biblical figures. When Strauss adapted Wilde’s Salome as an opera in 1905 it too was banned in Britain for quite some time - even The Met in New York refused to stage it for a good 20 years.
Now NI Opera have decided to stage Strauss’ Salome at the Grand Opera House in what will be its Northern Ireland premiere, and given Ulster’s deeply Christian affiliations it will be interesting to see how this darkly-charged erotic work is received - for whatever the questionable depiction of John the Baptist as one who feels the temptation of Salome’s advances - the music and the drama should be nothing short of mesmerising,
Director Oliver Mears describes the work as “fascinating, seductive and addictive” and enthuses that this will be a unique opportunity for local audiences to witness a lesser known work.
“Strauss’ Salome is indeed a very risque work. One of the reasons why we wanted to do it is that Northern Ireland has a very strong religious tradition and we wanted people to have the opportunity to see something that has been contentious in this way.
“The Dance of the Seven Veils is perhaps the most famous moment in the opera and here we have Northern Ireland soprano Giselle Allen in the title role.
“I feel this is a revolutionary score - veering between the classically romantic and the modernist,
complicated, encompassing so many different emotions and so many different dramatic moments.”
Richard Georg Strauss (1864-1949) was part of the late flowering of German romantic music post-Wagner, and his Salome is dissonant and almost modernist in style, in many places coruscating and then pitch dark, described by Gustav Mahler as a “a live volcano, a subterranean fire”.
Mears is clearly enraptured by the score and the dark power of the storyline.
“Strauss’s composition is voluptuous and decadent, very romantic,” he explains. “It has darkness and eroticism. Towards the end when John the Baptist is killed there is tremendous brutality in the orchestra and Strauss actually said that the orchestra should sound like wild beasts when they are playing this sequence.
“People will be surprised and thrilled by this.”
The NI Opera director is entralled by the terrible beauty of Strauss’ operatic interpretation of Salome.
“Strauss was in many ways the last romantic, just there on the cusp of modernism,” he contines. “A lot of work is really at the edge of romanticism and melody before Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the advent of modernism changed all this and composers were then moving into much more difficult territory.
“The harmonies are advanced for their time and often difficult, cacophonous, dissonant and then romantic and melodic - Strauss has a very broad musical palette and his work is diverse both in style and in its range of reference.”
Interesting too is how Strauss, born a Catholic, lost his faith and took, after the decadent Wilde who was imprisoned during the play’s English publication, a rather negative view of the apostle.
“Strauss does not portray him in a sympathetic light, which is following on from how he is portrayed in Oscar Wilde’s play - as someone who is dogmatic and rigid. At one point Strauss wrote a letter explaining that he saw the character of John the Baptist as an imbecile. Strauss was born a Catholic but lost his religion. He does spend a lot of time ranting too about how evil Salome is for having sexual thoughts about John the Baptist and how evil her mother is for having married Herod’s brother.”
Not for NI Opera the kind of sedate and snoreful productions that can be something like a trial to endure - their mission statement has always been to shake things up and to find a way of presenting opera that is sexier, compelling and hugely engagaging.
“A lot of people can be put off by opera or find it dull. But as a company our job has always been to make opera accessible, riveting, thrilling.”
Salome by NI Opera, Grand Opera House, Belfast, February 6 at 8pm and February 8 at 2pm. Call the box office on 02890 241919 or visit www.goh.co.uk.