What I knew about Oscar Wilde's play "Salomé" before last night was as follows: he wrote it in French while gadding about in Paris with a bunch of symbolists. He was particularly influenced by none other than Maurice Maeterlinck; he's quoted as attributing his use of French to Maeterlinck's example, since "a great deal of the curious effect that Maeterlinck produces comes from the fact that he, a Flamand by grace, writes in an alien language." And if Strauss' German libretto is any indication, Wilde was influenced by the Belgian in more than his choice to write in a foreign language. Repetition, repetition, repetition. The obsessive, incantatory, at times even frantic repetition that structures Maeterlinck's theatrical works from start to finish is very much in play in this opera. Of course, when you think of Maeterlinck, you're thinking of a theater of non-action (or as close to it as one can get: in his "ideal world", you would have had marionettes performing his plays, moving only when absolutely necessary). Characters stand around in ominously darkened castles, aware that a nameless "something" is wrong; the repetitive dialogue (or more often, alternating monologues) manifest the interior dramas of the various characters as they react--not just once, but over and over, obsessively--to the fact that "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". Salomé is, by contrast, about as visually dramatic as you can get, in some respects. Yet despite the dramatic allure of the Biblical story to a decadent aesthete like Wilde, the core of the drama here is interior as well: we're essentially watching the Freudian conflict between eros and thanatos play out, and beneath that (and possibly more crucially) a kind of semi-neo-platonist conflict between eros-as-sexuality* (material) vs. eros-as-religious-impulse (spiritual) (both of which are, from the little I understand of Freud, allowed for in his definition of eros).
As in Maeterlinck's plays, repetition here is a signal of obsession. Salomé comes out from a banquet into the courtyard, disturbed by her stepfather's obsession with her; her complaints are interrupted by a cry from John the Baptist, who is imprisoned nearby, but just out of view. Instantly, she becomes the one obsessed, now with the Baptist, whom she clearly recognizes as someone in some way "special". And here the "structure of threes" commences. The opera takes place in three main parts (I don't know if you'd call them "acts" exactly or what; my technical opera vocabulary is non-existent), but beyond that nearly every interaction between characters is threefold: question/demand-answer-comment and then repetition of the pattern with slight variations. Salomé tries three times to seduce Narraboth, the main guard (who is himself clearly a bit obsessed with her), in order to get him to go against his orders and let her see John. John is accordingly let out when Narraboth capitulates; Salomé is fascinated by his intransigence and complete dedication to a higher calling, and tries three times to seduce him.
It's here, during the attempt to seduce John the Baptist, that we really start to see the tragedy unfold. Her first appearance gives us the impression (at least, as the role is performed by the very excellent Nicola Beller Carbone) of a spoiled, slightly scatterbrained young girl, appropriately disturbed by her stepfather's inappropriate interest, but otherwise very much what you might expect the stereotypical "princess" to be. It's when she's interacting with the Baptist, however, that we begin to realize that she's dangerously on the verge of a complete collapse into madness. And it simultaneously becomes tragically clear that the single figure who the audience might expect to be able to help her is utterly incapable of doing so. John is an intransigent figure here, faithfully proclaiming God's judgment of Herod's house; he is moral, yet also inhuman. The guards, Herod, and the party guests see the prophet accordingly only as a threat, either to royal power or orthodox theology: his unearthliness causes him to be treated not as one dedicated to God, but simply as a non-human. Salomé is the only one to break from the mold in her treatment of the prophet. She recognizes him as a human being and attempts to interact with him as such; she is clearly in some ways susceptible to the message he proclaims. What keeps her from being able to accept it is first John's own intransigence, and second, her own inability to comprehend any sort of "love" beyond the sexual.
So then, Salomé tries to seduce the prophet three times. He rebuffs her three times, as he is clearly supposed to do. Rather than attempting to show her the proper way to respond to his message, however, he can see her only as the offspring of sin. Hence the maledictions and accusations: she is "the daughter of Herodias", the member of a house accursed by God; nothing more. Around his third refusal (if I'm remembering the numbering correctly), he does seem to begin to realize that there actually is a person in front of him, pleading in her own misdirected way for recognition. He still cannot help her, but he does tell her essentially "Look, I can't help you; you're from a cursed house and my role is to proclaim the judgment of God. But there's this guy from Galilee who forgives sins...you should head over to him." All well and good, but then we realize just how incapable Salomé is of taking this advice: the words make no impact whatsoever. She repeats verbatim what she had been insisting before (I think it was "I want to kiss your mouth, Jochanaan" at this point). We begin to realize that whatever her history may be (and it is hinted more and more as the opera goes on that this history involves Herod and his incestuous interest in her), it has left her incapable of comprehending any form of eros beyond the sexual; thus John's religious eros attracts her, yet she is without the resources necessary to respond appropriately.
That is more or less the heart of the drama of the play. Salomé is eventually driven to such a frenzy at John's refusal that she shoots Narraboth, killing him, before she returns to the banquet just before the intermezzo. Things are kind of going pretty badly.
The second "act" is by far the most visually interesting, possibly to make up for the fact that this is now more or less the Biblical story as we know it. The settings modernize the opera; the courtyard outside had been a bullet-riddled cement wall with furniture stacked hastily at one end, pointing to the fragility of Herod's reign. This "reign" is in the second act implied to be little more than a series of parties in a "gilded cage" (again, the obvious reading of the set here; the room is surrounded by a cage-like wooden framework, softened by gauzy sheets stretched between beams, the whole rendered chintzily glamorous by the extravagant banquet table at the center and ostentatious chandelier overhanging it all). I was a bit skeptical of the modernization in the first act--really, guns, black suits, and machine guns are kind of hackneyed by now--but was quickly won over by the fantastic performance and kind of magnificent lighting. On the other hand, the modern setting worked really, really well in the second act. Herod was a fat, dirty, sunglasses-wearing dictator; the type you'd associate with some petty tyranny somewhere in the Balkans or, more recently, the Middle East. Herodias was a vile, spiteful woman in ostentatiously-bejeweled red, whose hatred of John for "saying bad things about her" was overwhelming; even so, as my friend pointed out, she was allowed her brief humanizing moments in her not completely self-interested distress at Herod's behavior towards her daughter. The minor characters here made it all the more fun to watch: at one particularly excellent point, the Jewish elders attending the banquet begin to argue about who John the Baptist is; it soon degenerates into a theologically-motivated pie-fight in one of the really funny moments of the performance. Herod, in the mean time, runs around with a video camera, videotaping arguments and pie-throwing in his drunken hilarity, only to always end up getting distracted by recording Salomé who through much of the scene sits in a chair in the corner, doing nothing, visibly preoccupied by her interview with John.
What I found to be particularly excellent about the choice to modernize the settings, however, was the way it allowed the piece to reimagine the (in)famous "Dance of the Seven Veils". That of course, is what both play and opera are most famous for, its mere inclusion having been a pretext for banning both from the stage in the US and England for years after their debuts. And the performance has, from what I see, certainly ranged from slightly sketchy to very, very much so indeed. Here, the "dance" shown on stage was very brief indeed, soon giving way to the projection of a dvd filmed so that Herod appears to be holding the camera (I'm not certain that most of the reviewers are correct in thinking that he actually was holding the camera; the guard visible in the mirror kind of belies that reading, as does Herod's excitement at seeing it). Anyway, just as the dvd starts to get really sketchy, the projector is turned around so that the image is now invisible to the audience but projecting out onto it. Now that's certainly directorial innovation; both a commentary of sorts the controversial history of the opera and a questioning of why the audience is there. Surely we are not voyeurs like Herod...right?
Not surprisingly, it was this innovation that's drawn the most critical condemnation. It was a "'Salomé' privée de sensualité", one paper said. "Très clinquante et trop froide" declared another. The English-language reviews were likewise critical of the decision, saying that it departed catastrophically from Wilde's intentions in the original play, that it was "cold" and insufficiently sensual (by contrast everyone seemed to find the singers anything but "cold"; Carbone's performance in particular was highly praised). Well, yes, the way it was presented did play down the sensuality of the scene and play up its disturbing aspect. But I have to wonder whether that is so very destructive to Wilde's interpretation of the Biblical story? True, shocking sensuality is something he probably intended, knowing Wilde. But this simple shock value, as this director seems to have realized, can distract from the fundamentally Freudian conflict driving the opera.
I am unsure as to whether or not Wilde was familiar with Freud's writings (I think the latter was a bit later), but the two writers do come from the same artistic generation, and Freud's "discoveries" are less "discovered" than coherently articulated by that author. Basic concepts like the potential for confusion between eros-as-sexuality and eros-as-religious-impulse (neoplatonism, anyone?) or the conflict between eros and thanatos (Greek plays, obviously) have been present in art and philosophy throughout history, and were so much at the forefront of thought in Wilde's time that I'd be very surprised if his original play didn't involve those subtexts. What's more, Strauss recognized them in the play and deliberately highlighted them in the opera, from what I've read.
The projection of the dvd out onto the audience and the implied commentary on the audience's reasons for being there is, as I already admitted, a directorial innovation. But the very existence of the dvd, with a very child-like Salomé as the object and the suggested identification of Herod as filmmaker, if not in fact than in principle, has the effect of highlighting the implication that Salomé's inability to respond properly to John's eros-as-religious-impulse is due to Herod's behavior. About as importantly, it ensures that the audience will be disturbed by what is going on without being distracted from the fact that it ought to be disturbed. I don't necessarily find that to be a bad thing. Of course, if art is solely a question of pushing boundaries and violating the (non-existant, by now?) "bourgeois comfort zone", then, yes, the dvd was a sell-out. As it happens, that's not how I see art, so....
The structure of threes continues throughout this act and into the final one. You see Herod's threefold appeal to Salomé to eat; her threefold refusal. Herod's threefold appeal to her to dance, culminating in her agreement when he makes the fateful promise "I'll give you anything you want". When she finally requests the head of John the Baptist, Herod tries to bribe her three times to change her request, and finally gives up upon her third refusal. You also notice the three "unnatural loves" that are the reason anything happens at all: Narraboth's "unnatural" class-denying love that allows Salomé to meet the Baptist in the first place; Herod's unnatural "love" for Salomé, and finally the initially ignorant, and eventually completely perverted love of Salomé for John.
The final act is the bringing of John's head to Salomé, and features the only real prolonged solo of the opera. The threefold structure of response-answer-comment that had ruled over Salomé's previous interactions with the prophet gives way. He is no longer even capable of the most unhelpful response, and so she must answer her own questions which she poses to the prophet's slowly-bleeding head. It becomes painfully obvious, if it hadn't already been, that she has remained so stuck in materiality, unable to ascend to John's spiritual heights, that her desire for him has been reduced to desire for his body--here, obviously, the head. She repeats the praises of his eyes, hair, and lips, as in the first act. Response now is even more impossible than it had been, and John's head stands on the table now utterly objectified. That is, of course, the irony of the play. The only character who had been remotely capable of interacting with John as a person has found it impossible to communicate with him, and has ended by making him, quite literally, an object. Material and nothing more. The obsessive repetition-- "your eyes, your hair, your lips", again and again--crescendos until she finally kisses the head and sings in tragic triumph her last words in the opera: "Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan." Herod, disgusted at what has happened without, of course, seeming at all conscious of his own role in the matter, violently supplies the final response: "kill this woman".
This is, as one critic describes it, "ecstasy falling in upon itself, crumbling into the abyss". It's at this point, at the moment when thanatos--the destructive impulse that is in constant conflict with the creative impulse of eros--stands alone and victorious. We realize at this point why it is that destruction and disappointment has overshadowed the opera from the beginning. It's not simply that the audience (probably) already knows how the story ends (that certainly plays into audience response to the story, but how is not a question to answer now). It's that, again, Salomé has been from the beginning of distinguishing between the two types of eros, and John, who one might expect to be able to teach her, has been incapable of expressing it, precisely because he is incapable of recognizing her as a distinct human being. The two characters are opposites who "should" be made compatible, but "circumstances" have made that impossible: Salomé and John are both doomed from the start. Thanatos cannot but be victorious when eros is unnaturally divided against itself, and so that's precisely how the opera ends: with a jarringly discordant chord and two executions. Nice, eh?
*Throughout I'm making the distinction between "eros-as-sexuality" and "eros-as-religious-impulse"; that former term in particular is reductive. One of the most important points the opera/play brings up is that it is absolutely necessary to recognize other human beings as human beings if eros itself is not to succumb to thanatos. The ability to do so correlates within the confines of the narrative with what I awkwardly describe as "eros-as-sexuality". It is, however, apparent that if John could respond properly, or if Salomé actually went "to the Galilean" as John instructs, this recognition of person-as-person need not be actually sexual in the non-theological understanding of the term; that is, it's not John's celibacy that prevents him from responding. I've been using the term, awkward as it is, mostly as an acknowledgement that's the only means open for Salomé to recognize a person as a person: hence "eros" for her is even more limited than using the term as a blanket would suggest.