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Sexy, Sexy Salome

Karita Mattila as Salome
I’m still immersed in a Richard Strauss phase, my current obsession being “Salome”, his 1905 opera of sexual perversion, murder, and necrophilia. I love his music for the rich, lush sound, the continuous flow of music, revolving around simple motifs that ebb and flow and build to powerful endings. Particularly in “Salome”, you can hear the influence of the Wagner of “Tristan und Isolde”, but with the advantage, in my opinion, that Strauss’ material is more grounded in reality, and is not as long-winded and exhausting as Wagner’s. Yes, it’s hard to believe that a story about Herod, John the Baptist, a suicide, lust, a naked dance, a beheading, and a heroine who sings her final love aria to the severed head before kissing it on the mouth, could be described as “grounded in reality”, but I mean it. Compared to Wagner’s six hour operas about mythical heroes, magical beings, and Very Significant Meaning, Strauss keeps you compelled by his dramatic intensity (the whole opera is one scene and is just over two hours long), the stage action, and by the way Salome’s lurid and demented obsession is still an exaggerated form of how everyone loves, at some point in their life: without reason, jealously, and to the point of destruction under the pain of rejection. 

The final moment when Salome is brought Jokanaan’s head on a platter is just a masterpiece of music-theatre: the divided orchestra plays a trill, making a quivering noise that is punctuated by the “oriental” four-note phrase of the flute and oboe; Salome sings of kissing Jokanaan’s mouth, of the bitter taste, a taste like blood, like love, like death; she seems horrified at her own actions, at what she has drive herself to; but then she sings the words again, louder, accompanied by the orchestra playing the ‘Salome motif’ louder, triumphantly. There is a huge release of sound and emotion, ended moments later when Herod orders his guards to kill her. Wonderful stuff.
Much as I love Strauss, I do wonder what it is that marks the difference between other composers of opera. It occurs to me that if you described their effect in terms of how they might make love, it would be something like this:
  • Strauss is devoted to pleasure, and he delivers the goods at the end, but you get the feeling that it’s practiced, and that ultimately he keeps a part of himself disengaged.
  • Verdi would be the lover who wants to impress, to show off to you, to floor you with his technique.
  • But that would still be different to Beethoven, who keeps banging away and doesn’t hide the fact that he enjoys the occasional use of force.
  • Mozart, however, gives you the ultimate good time: varied, responsive, knowing all there is to know about the art, finding different and new ways to give pleasure, almost always guaranteed to produce multiple satisfactions.

Er, let me see, where was I ... I was talking about music, wasn’t I?

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