Saturday, October 11, 2008

Giving Oscar his Due

Operatic interpretations of literary works frequently provide interesting insights into the story, but it is seldom the case that the discourse structure of the original text is given very much consideration. The most notable exception in the nineteenth century was Arrigo Boito's libretto for Giuseppe Verdi's Otello. The text included with the old vinyl recording that Arturo Toscanini made of this opera had three columns:

  1. Boito's Italian
  2. An English translation of Boito's text
  3. Excerpts from Shakespeare's text that paralleled Boito's version (when they existed)

The parenthesis says it all: There are long stretches where that third column is blank, but the parallels that exist are provide some fascinating insights into Boito's approach.

A more systematic move in this direction was applied by Richard Strauss in his opera Salome. This is best appreciated by considering the pedigrees of both the play by Oscar Wilde that inspired it and the libretto that Strauss ended up using. The account that Michael Kennedy gave in his notes for the Georg Solti recording on which Birgit Nilsson sang the title role:

Wilde had been drawn to the subject by the Salome paintings of Gustav Moreau. These had also inspired Flaubert's short story Hérodias (1877) and Massenet's opera Hérodiade (1881). Wilde's play was a failure in Paris [originally written in French] and was banned in England [but translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas]. But in 1901 it had a success in Breslau in a German translation, and ran for two hundred performances in Berlin in 1902-3 in Max Reinhardt's production of another translation by Hedwig Lachmann.

Strauss asked [Anton] Linder [who had offered to give Strauss a libretto based on Wilde's text] to send him some sample scenes of a Salome libretto. When these arrived he was only mildly impressed and compared them with the Lachmann translation. Lachmann's opening line, "Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!" ("How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight!" [Note that these are Douglas' words, although my edition uses the spelling "to-night."]) immediately suggested music to him, and his copy of the play shows that against various crucial lines he scribbled musical ideas. So when he went to see the play in Berlin in 1903 he was already at work on the opera.

The result was an opera that did as much honor to Wilde's original discourse strategies as had been preserved in Lachmann's translation.

I have written all this because I feel it is relevant to an appreciation of how Jürgen Flimm has staged Strauss' opera for the Metropolitan Opera, having just seen the live HD telecast at my local movie theater. I have seen this opera many times in both live performances and telecasts, but I have to say that this production is the first one through which I felt I was finally beginning to make sense of what Wilde was doing in his play. This is best explained in terms of my recent excursions on the subject of narrative genres. I would argue that the best way to approach the play Salomé is as a demonstration of the principles of Wilde's particular approach to the aesthetic and decadent movements put into practice. The result is a clash of identity-defining narratives:

  • Disgusted with the lewd stares of her stepfather, Herod, and bored with the decadence of palace life in a colonial outpost, Salomé's identity becomes focused on a fierce craving for the beautiful, so fierce that it drives her to seek it in the squalor of the physical condition of Jokanaan, who is being kept in solitary confinement at the bottom of a cistern.
  • Equally focused on beauty and just as distorted are the motives of the Syrian Captain of the Guard (named Narraboth in the opera), who, for all the authority of his military rank, is a hopeless slave to Salomé's every wish, serious or frivolous.
  • Meanwhile, Herod has formed his own identity around conspicuous consumption. No longer satisfied with all the food and riches at his disposal, that consumption is now being directed at his wife's daughter. His obsessive craving for Salomé makes him just as much a slave to her wishes as the Captain of the Guard has become.
  • Jokanaan's identity, on the other hand, is basically shaped by the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and his conviction that the Messiah has finally arrived. He has been imprisoned for declaring Herodias a sinner for having married Herod, who is the brother of her deceased husband. His faith sustains him through his imprisonment and keeps him impervious to Salomé's advances.
  • This brings us to Herodias whose identity is driven by double insult: from Jokanaan's accusations of incest and from Herod's neglect in preference for her own daughter.

Out of this bizarre mix, the values of Herod's decadence and Salomé's aestheticism ascend and are both consummated. However, these consummations are not without consequences. By the end of the play, the Captain of the Guard, Jokanaan, and Salomé have all perished, Herodias is vindicated, and it is unclear whether or not Herod knows what the hell has happened to him.

Whether Strauss understood any of this or was just taking his cue from honoring not only the story line but also Wilde's very words (at least as Lachmann had rendered them in German) should not influence the way we listen to his score. However, Wilde's conception seems to have had a significant influence on Flimm; and he has been blessed with a cast that could not only hold its own against Strauss' gargantuan orchestral resources and demanding vocal lines but also deliver on the theatrical realization of that conception:

  • Faced with Deborah Voigt holding a microphone and asking for a few words for the HD audience, Karita Mattila replied with what she said were her words before every performance: "Let's go out and kick some ass!" Fully aware that she would be contending with no end of camera close-ups, her performance of Salome did just that. If Wilde had conceived of Salomé's conception of beauty as having been warped by her circumstances, then Mattila knew exactly how to sing Strauss' version while portraying just the right number of loose screws in her character traits. This is a role that cannot help but exhaust the soprano, but she came through it by exhausting all of us in the audience.
  • Similarly, Joseph Kaiser knew how to present Narraboth as a man whose very sense of reality has been sacrificed on the alter of his obsession with Salome's beauty. There was a crystal clarity to his tenor voice, but Kaiser was not afraid to elicit the befogged mind behind that voice. His own death is a suicide, which is basically brought on by his recognition that he can no longer makes sense of what is going on around him. It is the first of the three deaths and is often treated as incidental. Kaiser's sense of Narraboth was too keen for that episode to be so lightly dismissed.
  • Kim Begley's Herod came off as an interesting synthesis of the Aegisth in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto for Strauss' Elektra and Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' Can on a Hot Tin Roof. His tenor voice was also a model of clarity, and the casualness of his obsession with Salome was absolutely bone-chilling. There is nothing inconsistent about the almost throw-away gesture with which he orders her death in the final words of the text.
  • Juha Uusitalo sang Jochanaan with an equally solid baritone voice, particularly important since so much of that singing has to come from the bottom of that cistern (figuratively, if not literally). The dramatic challenge for this role is to provide equal force to both off-stage and on-stage presence. When we finally see Jochanaan, what we see must be consistent with what we have already been hearing; and, working with Flimm, Uusitalo figured out the most effective ways to deliver that consistency.
  • If Kim Begley was Big Daddy, Ildikó Komlósi delivered a Herodias that looked as if it had originally been cast with Elizabeth Taylor in mind, not as Maggie the Cat but as Big Momma herself. As that victim of double insult, Herodias is motivated by nothing other than getting even; and Taylor could be very good at that sort of thing. Ultimately she gets even with both Jochanaan and Herod (in that order); yet, by the time all the tables have turned in her favor, she is too drunk to notice (not that different from Martha at the end of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). As is the case with Narraboth, it is too easy to dismiss Herodias as a secondary character; but that did not prevent Komlósi from delivering a primary portrayal.

As most of us know, James Levine has tuned the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to a level where it can now give its own performances in Carnegie Hall. Strauss' score is probably more demanding than most of his orchestral works. The Met Orchestra has to deliver from the confines of their pit and maintain balance with the voices on the stage. Patrick Summers stayed on top of all these demands while conducting them. He also knew how to pace the energy through an opera that is almost two hours long without an intermission and offers few moments of relief from dynamics that always tend towards the intense. In all respects this was a performance that deserved to be captured on video. It provided opportunity for those who lack the opportunity to attend a live performance, while setting a standard for how future performances may be conceived.

Post Script: In Robert Graves' version (in Claudius the God), Salome is not killed under Herod's order. She lives and eventually marries her first cousin. Claudius (as narrator) reproduces "an indiscreet letter" shown to him by a member of Herod's family. In includes the following passage:

It reminds me of what you said when we had that mystical idiot John the Baptist beheaded—"Religious fanaticism is the most dangerous form of insanity."

Graves was less interested in the stuff from which dramas and operas were made!

No comments: