Reading Charles Rosen's piece on Wystan Auden in the latest New York Review, I encountered the following sentence about Oscar Wilde:
De Profundis (the letter from Wilde in prison to "Bosie," Lord Alfred Douglas) and Salome, for example, make painfully embarrassing reading, the one drenched in self-pity and the other in absurdly bad taste, and yet they remain important with all their imperfection precisely because they embarrass and disturb while commanding our attention.
Looking back on my observations about Jürgen Flimm's staging for the Metropolitan Opera of Richard Strauss' Salome opera, with its highly literal adaptation of Wilde's text, my only argument would be that there is nothing absurd about that bad taste. It is through the bad taste that Wilde tapped into his ideology of decadence. It is because there is not even the slightest hint of absurdity (as we would later find, for example, in the plays of Eugène Ionesco) that the Salome experience is as embarrassing and disturbing as it is. When Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who would collaborate with Strauss on most (all?) of his subsequent operas, said of Wilde that "he insulted reality," he could well have had both the play and Strauss' operatic adaptation in mind.
Strauss, of course, was neither embarrassed nor disturbed by decadence (which is one reason why I chafe at Alex Ross choosing to begin his book about twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise, with Salome). Ross has no trouble hearing the decadence in Der Rosenkavalier; but, where he sees regress in the path from Salome to Rosenkavalier, I see progress. Furthermore, I see Hofmannsthal as the instrument of that progress. Even though I wrote about Salome as "a clash of identity-defining narratives," the ideology of decadence reduces those identities to cardboard stereotypes, just as Alfred Jarry had reduced his atrocity-ridden retelling of Macbeth, his play Ubu Roi (which, incidentally, predates Wilde's play by less than a decade), to violence perpetrated by puppets. Hofmannsthal returned Strauss to the world of fully fleshed-out human characters in Rosenkavalier, and the decadence of the music surrounds those characters with the poignant Sehnsucht over the passing from an old order to a new one. The identities clash here, too; but we feel for them as much as we detach ourselves from the characters of Salome (which is the only way we can cope with feeling embarrassed and disturbed by them). One could almost image Hofmannsthal saying, "All right, Richard, you've had your fun with Oscar's toys. Now put them away, and let's get to work on some characters in the real world!"
None of this should be take as retrospective criticism of the Metropolitan Opera production. In an age in which the entertainment industry has almost inoculated us against even the most horrible shocks, Flimm found ways to keep the embarrassing and disturbing qualities of this century-old work alive and provocative; and the Met provided him with a cast who devoted all their energies into buying into his techniques. There is no question that Salome deserves a place in the opera repertoire, but Flimm still deserves credit from reminding us of what it did to achieve that status.