A tragedy of lovelessness: production concept for Richard Strauss' Salome for Edmonton Opera, Waut Koeken and Yannik Larivée, May 2013
"Oh! Warum sahst du mich nicht an? Hättest du mich angesehn, du hättest mich geliebt. Ich weiss es wohl...
Und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist grösser als das Geheimnis des Todes."
"O, why did you not look at me? If you would have looked at me, you would have loved me.
I am certain of it... And the mystery of Love is greater than the mystery of Death."
(Salome, final scene)
The inspiration for this production of Salome was found approaching the work in very much the same way as Richard Strauss when he adapted his libretto from the startling play by Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s original text is haunting, evocative, poetic and intoxicating. The story of Salome, and Wilde’s almost hypnotizing pseudo biblical poetry, resonated in a powerful way with the society of Strauss’ epoch — it’s obsession with death and repressed sensuality, decadence and immorality, the Viennese world of Klimt and Schiele. Strauss meticulously stripped the play bare of any extraneous words, lines, characters and scenes to distill the text into its bare emotional essence. The result is an incredibly concentrated, compact and psychologically gripping tale of profound longing and profound moral failure — the failure of society, Salome and even the failure of Jesus’ representative John the Baptist, whose rigid religious dogma does not recognize Salome’s sincere capacity to love.
The unequaled richness of the opera’s orchestration conveys the disturbed psychology of the characters, and the biblical setting is a vehicle for Strauss’ desire to tell the story at its most universal level. Strauss’ orchestration reveals a psychological space; it translates the outward scenic action into extremely powerful subjective impressions and evocations of emotional and psychological states. The composer is primarily interested in Salome’s inner drama and leads his audience into the dark and complex world of her psyche. In this way we are inspired to strip the story of its historical trappings, to find a version which can speak to today’s audience.
The world of Salome is a world of moral decay. It is a world of sumptuous wealth and decadence, gold and riches, palatial life; but also of nightmares, dungeons and death. The failure and downfall the characters in the opera comes from living in a material world of wealth and privilege but one devoid of love, understanding and human compassion.
Salome is often read as a dark and provocative piece about the dangerous abysses of unbound erotic desire and its heroine is mostly seen as a prototype of the femme fatale, whose amoral behaviour and boundless sensuality destroys the men around her and ultimately leads to her own destruction. A closer reading of Strauss’ score, however, reveals a very different picture. From the very opening of the work, one hears in the orchestral texture the incessant resounding of Salome’s love theme. Strauss’ music makes it clear to me that his lyrical drama is a drama of love. (In a later letter, Strauss stressed that Salome’s behaviour should not just be met with horror and dismay, but also with pity.)
In this way I see Salome not as the classic femme fatale, “la dame sans merci,” but as a victim. She longs for a kind of love that she has never received in her life, and maybe cannot truly understand. She is clearly manipulated by her mother, and sexually objectified by her stepfather. She has been raised with enormous material wealth, but with a complete absence of any kind of emotional nurturing, a loveless upbringing in a dysfunctional family. Today, we would speak of atrocious abuse.
The drama of Salome unfolds against the backdrop of King Herod's sumptuous and luxurious golden palace: a world of wealth, power, decadent parties and banquets, lit by the ominous silvery light of the moon, which dominates and permeates the piece from the opening lines to the very end. However, the brilliant palatial world in which the young princess grows up is a golden prison; despite all its splendor, it is a darker, more claustrophobic and more terrifyingly lonely place than the cistern in which the prophet is imprisoned.
Rather than a naturalistic or concrete depiction of a sumptuous biblical palace, we have tried to create a visual world that evokes poetically the universe of Salome's tragedy and focuses on the inner essence of the lyrical drama. The immense sensory poetry of the text and the score are so powerful that one needs to create a theatrical space in which this music can breathe and sculpt Salome’s world. Beyond the distractions and clichés of the exotic and decorative orientalism often associated with the subject, we wanted to create a stage set that is atmospherically charged, that can evoke powerful associations and impressions; one that can change and transform with economy to the moods and colors of the music and the heroine’s mental states.
We have created a highly subjective space: whole sections of dangling, dark silvery chains hang down onto the empty stage, defining a vast and at the same time claustrophobic space that is at once grandiose palace, a dazzling banquet hall and a dark dungeon. The space is continually changing by subtle use of lighting, closely following the movements of the music — the stage is transformed from a silvery moonlit dream world to a golden throne hall, to a gloomy cistern and a place of nightmares, basking in the ominous light of Wilde’s “blood-red moon.” The moon is an immense fractured mirror hanging over the tragedy, symbol of Salome’s loss of self and identity, and evoking the beauty and apocalyptic doom in Wilde's and Strauss’ intoxicating poetry.
The emptiness and darkness around are always present and palpable behind the glistening and glittering façade. In this realm, nothing is what it seems. Characters can enter and exit through the “walls,” like phantoms in a grotesque nightmare, and yet there is no escape. At the centre of the space, there is an immense, sumptuously set banquet table, evoking all the luxury, gluttony and decadence of an overwhelmingly rich but rotten society. The king, queen and their subjects dine, dance and party, receive guests and engage in politics — as if this society is trapped in an eternal party. But as the powerful voice of the prophet resonates, all are paralysed as the huge tablecloth slowly starts to disappear, as if sucked into the underworld beneath. The set is transformed for the first (and most radical) time, leaving the empty table as an immense stage upon which the rest of the tragedy is to be played out.
It is on this stage that Salome will have her tragic confrontations with Jokanaan and perform her infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. At the heart of the tragedy is the relationship between the Salome and JoKanaan. It is the story of a utopian, impossible and misunderstood love; catastrophe is unavoidable. She is fascinated by the words coming from Jokanaan’s mouth, as he speaks of love and redemption. But because of Salome’s corrupted upbringing, both protagonists fail to recognize the opportunity their meeting offers them. Salome confuses her love for him as lust because she knows no difference. Jokanaan is both attracted and repelled by Salome’s sensuality, and responds by rejecting her. He repudiates her sensuality and is unable to give her the love she so craves; he even fails in the moral code that he preaches. However, without love we cannot become full human beings, and this propels the action of the opera to bring the downfall of these two flawed characters.
The Dance of the Seven Veils is the focal point for any director approaching this work. At the heart of his opera, Strauss inserts 11 minutes of symphonic poetry of enormous musical power. It is an incredibly subtle and accurate psychological portrait of his main character, a powerful, complex and detailed “psychogramm” of a young woman in a heightened state of crisis. After the exciting and intensely sensual opening bars, that seemingly announce an erotic dance, we leave the realm of realistic outward action to focus exclusively on Salome’s inner drama. The music of the love theme is omnipresent, as is the Salome motif, expressing fragments of her broken identity. I have decided to conceive this part of the opera as seven phases in Salome’s life, with extras and dancers representing her at seven different times in her life. The unveiling is not literal but psychological, with each veil representing a younger woman at an earlier time in Salome’s life. Rather than performing some sort of banal/trivial exotic strip-tease dance with seven veils, Salome '"unveils" her broken self in seven stages. Outwardly, she fulfils her stepfather's wishes to be entertained and aroused by the dance, but she metaphorically unleashes the full power of her history. With the assistance of choreographer Serge Bennathan I would like to create a staging to expose the aspects of her past which explains her current psychological crises. The dance is not a ballet but a visual diary, which reveals her inner world and her relationship with men, as well as the menace of male desire which has destroyed her life. That is why in my concept the role of Salome could be played by any good singer regardless of their physical shape or size, because she goes into her memory to tell her story, instead of just dancing it herself; the younger Salome, the object of Herod’s perverted desire, is played by younger actresses/dancers. During this dance, immense veils of dark red satin come in to cover the "walls" of the palace. At the climax of the dance, the veils are released and in a beautiful and terrifying movement, fall to the floor.
In the final, heartrending scene of Salome’s monologue, she wraps herself in the blood-red veils as if trying to disappear or drown. The empty space reveals the desperate, heartbreaking loneliness of a lost soul, unloved, unable to love. The silvery chains surrounding Salome’s lonely imprisonment are now like a thousand iridescent tears raining down on the stage.
As a historic subject and fin de siècle art document, Salome links two comparable historical phases — times of transition, but also times of decadence, despair, moral and social disorientation — with a third epoch: that of our own. Today also, ethical, moral, religious and social notions are exposed to decay and disintegration of their essential values. The central questions raised in the text and expressed through the music are very much the same today as they were in Strauss' turn-of-the-century world or in the world of over 2,000 years ago.