Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Herod and his Discontents (and ours)

Yesterday I submitted a comment to San Francisco Classical Voice in response to Jason Victor Serinus' review of the current San Francisco Opera production of Richard Strauss' Salome. I wanted to pick up on his observation that Kim Begley had played Herod as "a pathetic wimp of a lush hardly capable of wearing the crown" (without saying very much about whether this was Begley's decision, that of director Seán Curran, or that of Curran's consulting director and dramaturgy, James Robinson). I suggested that, from a strictly musical point of view, Strauss' portrayal of Herod might have provided Alban Berg with models that he would later apply to the Captain in his Wozzeck opera. We do not know if the Captain has a drinking problem; but, if we take that "crown" as metaphor for his officer's insignia, the rest of the description fits rather nicely. This has led me to revisit the question of who Herod really his and what role he plays in this opera.

I would like to begin in the somewhat unlikely place of a lesson from Molière, with particular attention to his structuring of Tartuffe. The lesson is that he, as playwright, keeps you waiting for a considerable time before you actually see Tartuffe on the stage. The last time I saw a staged production, it was performed with a single intermission; and Tartuffe's first appearance took place shortly before that intermission. The point is that his appearance has so much impact because, by the time we actually see him, we have been subjected to a wide variety of different points of view about him. We do not know what to make of him on the basis of the testimony of others; so we are "primed" to observe him in action and figure things out for ourselves.

Think now of how Strauss reveals his characters to us in his highly faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde's text. While Wilde's script presents the play as a single act taking place in a single scene, Strauss partitions the continuous flow of the music into four scenes. Without trying to sound too reductive, the first scene is basically "talk about Salome," coming primarily from Narraboth with highly metaphorical commentary from the Page, our first exposure to the voice of Jokanaan, and some "business talk" from the two soldiers and the Cappadocian. The second scene is marked by Salome's appearance. Bearing in mind that page count is not always the best measure of time, in the IMSLP reprint this takes place 15 pages into the 348-page score. Here the focus is on her suspicions about Herod and her fascination with Jokanaan's voice, culminating in her order to see him. The third scene follows an extended orchestral interlude, during which Jokanaan is fetched from the cistern in which he is imprisoned; and it begins with his entrance 44 pages into the score. From a dramatic point of view, this is a scene in which the exchange between Salome and Jokanaan follows a very strict "call and response" structure. Unlike the palace guard, however, Jokanaan is immune to Salome's commands and is ultimately sent back to his imprisonment. Only one scene remains. It follows another orchestral interlude, begins with Herod's entrance, and carries us through the rest of the narrative. In the score 122 pages have elapsed before this scene begins, and the scene requires 226 pages.

We thus have a somewhat telescoping process through which the characters are disclosed:

  1. We begin with secondary characters and the disembodied voice of Jokanaan.
  2. 14 pages elapse before the "talk about Salome" is resolved by her appearance.
  3. 29 pages then elapse before the disembodied voice of Jokanaan is resolved by his appearance.
  4. We then have 78 pages of interaction between Salome and Jokanaan, which basically sets us up for her subsequent interaction with Herod.
  5. That interaction then plays out over the remaining 122 pages.

This leads me to wonder whether or not Wilde may have calculated these appearances in terms of his particular take on their significance in the overall narrative. Yes, Salome "wins" the title of the opera; but Herod is ultimately the "engine" that "drives the narrative," so to speak. (This is rather like the way in which Scarpia occupies a more focal position than Tosca in Giacomo Puccini's opera based on Victorien Sardou's drama named after the latter heroine. Tosca the opera preceded Salome the opera by about five years; and my guess is that Strauss was as aware of it as he was of Wilde's source text.)

From this I would propose that any understanding of a performance of Salome must ultimately come down to how Herod is conceived and how that conception is realized. This is quite a challenge, given the sort of press the guy received. The Gospels present him as a Jewish stooge of Roman authority who slaughters all children born at the time of the Nativity in order to thwart the coming of the Messiah. In Claudius the God Robert Graves is a bit more objective but still has him succumb to madness. What does Wilde make of him? About a year ago I suggested that Wilde set him up as the ultimate decadent take on the aesthetic movement. I wrote that, as Wilde conceived him, he "formed his own identity around conspicuous consumption," with a focus on consumption of the beautiful. That conspicuous consumption leads to the death first of Jokanaan and then of Salome herself, but ultimately it is Herod himself that has been consumed by the end of the narrative. It is almost as if Wilde chose to reflect that there could be a "dark side" to the aesthetic movement he so championed.

From this point of view, his character differs significantly from Berg's musical conception of Wozzeck's Captain; but it differs just as significantly from how Serinus saw him. It is not so much that he is a "pathetic wimp" but that he is a "diseased" character representing an entire culture (Judea) that has become just as diseased under Roman rule. The question of whether or not the coming of the Messiah should be taken as a "cure for the disease" is left as an exercise for the reader. A more interesting question is whether or not Wilde recognized the "disease" in his own society, which was already laying the groundwork for the path to a World War that he did not live to witness.

Is all this reading too much into a one-act play that may have been conceived for no other reason than to scandalize? I do not think so. Every culture has the right to interpret the narratives it inherits within its current context. The fact that both the play and the opera continue to provoke means that our own culture continues to turn over questions of how they should be interpreted. The San Francisco Opera just happens to have provided us with another opportunity to examine those questions.


Cindy Warner said...

Wilde saw disease in his culture and he wasn't just a free spirit pursuing the aesthetic, he explored the consequences of indulgence. After all he was an educated aristocrat born with a sense of entitlement. That childlike self-centeredness and arrogance that damns their victims concentual or otherwise. Born into it, they seem to not know any better?

The Picture of Dorian Gray is all about the facade and what lies beneath.

About your comment that Oscar showed signs of the World War to come that he didn't live to see, that's echoed in Herod's final statements about something evil befalling his world. Doesn't he say, Go, hide the stars! And hide the moonlight! Something terrible will come.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Cindy, I think your point about The Picture of Dorian Gray is a good one. It is the earlier work, completed in 1890 about three years prior to the Salomé play. I think it is also structurally interesting that the "voice of foreboding" begins with the Page but is assumed by Herod in the conclusion. Salomé is almost as fascinating as a formal object as it is for its more visceral qualities!