Saturday, March 14, 2009


Bondage, incest, madness, murder, veiled voyeurism and necrophilia make Richard Strauss' 1905 opera Salome a dark delight. Based on Oscar Wilde's tragedy written in 1891, it is the Biblical tale of Salome, a young princess who performs the Dance of the Seven Veils for her lecherous stepfather, King Herod, so that she may indulge her fantasy of having John the Baptist's head served to her on a silver platter.

A current production at Toledo Opera directed by James Marvel boasts a cast of some of America's finest operatic talent. The set is stark and effective, with a looming moon and naked scaffolding. Lights by Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann illuminate and create the image of a vampiric skull and a technicolor horrorscape which sets an eerie and jarring tone from the start. The orchestra is positioned onstage, and the actors move through the players, giving the audience's eyes much to feast on. While other productions keep the same heightened and almost painful intensity throughout, Marvel's show has a definite arc of emotion, with moments of sweetness to counter and enrich the dark, violent eroticism of the piece. When Salome, portrayed expertly by Amy Johnson, sings a twenty minute aria to the bleeding, decapitated head of John the Baptist at the climax of the tale, I couldn't help but feel for the lovesick princess. "If you looked at me, you would have loved me," she opines before kissing his bluish lips.

There is no kitsch in the end, despite how absurd it may seem to writhe about in a Dionysian fervor whilst singing to a bloody head. Decades before contemporary horror coalesced into a genre, Strauss created an opera with Wilde's storyline that is as gory and as sexy as your favorite Troma film, with the same level of seething seriousness as F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu.

To taste for yourself, Netflix Steven Berkoff's surreal, kabuki-esque production of Wilde's play, or Luc Bondy's 1997 production of Richard Strauss' opera at Royal Opera Covent Garden.

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