Thursday, September 02, 2010

Mercoledi Musciale - A Day Late

According to the Catholic calendar last Sunday was the celebration (?) of the Decapitation of John Baptist. Its a subject that has fascinated artists for centuries: painters, sculptures, composers and writers. The recounting of the execution of John at the hands of Herod Antipas has been expanded over time from a few paragraphs in the Gospels to a full blown epic with all the things that make a story good - intrigue, sex, family feuds, incest and political scandal. Strangely the telling of the events is more detailed in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus who looks at it without the gloss of the Evangelists.
This wonderful wood sculpture in oak (there I go with wood again)was carved around 1430 in Southern Germany. Its part of the rich collection at the wonderful Bode Museum in Berlin.

One of the more famous - though seldom seen - plays on the subject was written by Oscar Wilde. His Salome was written first in French and then translated into English. Needless to say it shocked the British censors with its language and subject - though written in 1891 it was not allowed on the stage in England until 1931.

While Richard Strauss's take on it caused little stir in Dresden when it premiered in 1905 New York was to be another story. Its first performance on January 22, 1907 at the Metropolitan Opera was well received and word of mouth about the scandalous nature of the piece meant that it was sold out. However J. Pierpont Morgan and the other righteous Episcopalian stockholders in the Met, had seen a dress rehearsal at 1100 of a Sunday morning and where suitably shocked. It was withdrawn - reluctantly given the damage to receipts - after only 5 performances. It was to be another 27 years before it would be presented in New York again.

Watching these videos of the last scene from the 1974 Götz Friedrich film with Teresa Stratas one can understand some of what shocked the still Victorian sensibilities of the good Burgers of Manhattan.

This is perhaps the definitive performance of the role - one that Stratas, by her own admission, could never have sung with such subtlety and nuance on stage. The size of the orchestra and the density of the music alone demands a bigger voice in the theatre than this great singer possessed. Conductor Karl Böhm - a colleague of and leading conductor of Strauss - maintained that this was the sort of voice the composer had always wanted for the role. I don't think any other performer has come as close to tracing the degeneration of the character from willful spoiled teenager to depraved maddened woman so intensely. The combination of Stratas's performance, Friedrich's direction and Böhm on the podium makes for an intense, frightening and fascinating experience.

I know its a long haul - 3 videos totaling some 20 minutes or more. For my non-operatic friends who might find it a struggle I might suggest the middle one section is perhaps the most fascinating for the language, music and Stratas' intense portrait of the Wilde-Strauss princess.

Salome, the step-daughter of Herod, has become fascinated by John the Baptist (Jokanaan) and becomes obsessed with kissing his mouth. The Holy Man is repulsed by the depravity of both this woman-child, her incestuous mother and the court of the King. Herod, who lusts after his step-daughter, in a moment of folly offers her anything if she will dance for him. Her only wish - the Head of Johanahan on a silver platter. Then he will be hers and she will be able to kiss his mouth.








I was fortunate that I saw Teresa Stratas at many stages in her career. I was in the audience in 1958 when she made her professional debut at the age of 20 in the Canadian Opera Company production of La Boheme. I was 12 years old at the time and my friend Bruce and I sat in the vertigo inducing 2nd balcony of the Royal Alexandra Theatre on the final evening of that run. I remember crying as Mimi died and Bruce was embarrassed until he realized that half the people around us where doing the same thing.

I was to see her again in Butterfly, Cosi fan tutte, Nozze di Figaro (twice - once as Cherubino in Salzburg than again as Suzanna in Paris) and for the last time live in 1992 in
Pelléas et Mélisande in Chicago. And of course I heard and saw her on so many broadcasts during her long career at the Met. Fascinating as a singer, totally committed as an actress and complex as a person she was one of the great operatic performers of the second half of the 20th century.

02 settembre - Sant'Antonino di Apamea

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2 comments:

David said...

Blimey, if you think that Salome's still shocking, take a look at the DVD of the Covent Garden production by McVicar (if you can bear the pitch-awful Nadja Michael). The bloody end is absolutely gut-wrenching, maybe more so than Strauss's (and Wilde's) combination of beauty, nostalgia and disgust might merit.

YELLOWDOG GRANNY said...

I remember my daddy telling my mom after we had seen Salome, never lose your head over a piece of ass..I didn't know what he meant then..do now.