A More Spiritual Salome: Massenet's 'Hérodiade'

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'Herodiade' at Vlaamse Opera, Belgium. i i

'Herodiade' at Vlaamse Opera, Belgium. Annemie Augustijns/courtesy of Vlaamse Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Annemie Augustijns/courtesy of Vlaamse Opera
'Herodiade' at Vlaamse Opera, Belgium.

'Herodiade' at Vlaamse Opera, Belgium.

Annemie Augustijns/courtesy of Vlaamse Opera

When Richard Strauss' sensational opera Salome was premiered in Dresden in 1905, its lurid story provoked a moral outcry — and it also sold a boatload of tickets. Kaiser Wilhelm II declared that the opera would do Strauss "a lot of damage." Strauss replied that the "damage" had paid for his new house!

But the success of Strauss' drama may have had the opposite effect on the popularity of another vivid opera based on the same story: Jules Massenet's Hérodiade.

The Hit Single

In Act Two, Herod (baritone Philippe Rouillon) confronts his erotic obsession with Salome, in the aria "Vision fugitive" — "A Fleeting Glimpse."

Strauss based Salome on the controversial 1891 play by Oscar Wilde. In turn, Wilde had literary inspiration of his own, a story by Gustave Flaubert about the biblical figure Herodias, who was the second wife of King Herod Antipas — and the mother of Salome.

The B Side

As the final act begins, John the Baptist (tenor Zoran Todorovich) reflects on his approaching death, singing "Adieu donc, vains objets" — "Thus Farewell to Earthly Things."

It was Flaubert's version of the Salome story that inspired Massenet, who completed Hérodiade in 1881. He was hoping for a premiere in Paris, but the director of the Paris Opera found the story "incendiary." So the opera's first production took place in Brussels later that same year and it was an immediate sensation, running for more than 50 performances. Just two months later, it was heard at La Scala in Milan, and by the early 1890s, the opera had made it all the way to New Orleans.

Yet by now, Hérodiade plays second, third or even fourth fiddle among Massenet's operas, after works such as Manon, Werther and Cendrillon. And that may be thanks to Richard Strauss; compared to Salome, Massenet's opera can seem almost tame.

In most versions of the Salome story, including the one in the Bible, it's Salome herself who gets the juiciest role. She's the seductive teenager who urges Herod to execute John the Baptist. In Wilde's play and in Strauss' opera, that's because John rejects her passionate advances.

But erotic obsession also plays a key role in Hérodiade, with Herod's lust for Salome taking center stage. And while Massenet portrays Salome's longings as more spiritual than sensual, he also lets that work for her. Salome actually seduces John in the opera's final act — and it may have been that element that got the opera banned in Paris.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Hérodiade from the Flanders Opera in Ghent, Belgium. The stars are baritone Philippe Rouillon as Herod, soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Salome and tenor Zoran Todorovich as John, in a production led by conductor Dmitri Jurowski.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Hérodiade'

Salome (Carmen Giannattasio) threatened in Massenet's 'Hérodiade.' i i

Salome (Carmen Giannattasio) threatened in Massenet's 'Hérodiade.' Annemie Augustijns/courtesy of Vlaamse Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Annemie Augustijns/courtesy of Vlaamse Opera
Salome (Carmen Giannattasio) threatened in Massenet's 'Hérodiade.'

Salome (Carmen Giannattasio) threatened in Massenet's 'Hérodiade.'

Annemie Augustijns/courtesy of Vlaamse Opera

Who's Who

Philippe Rouillon ............. King Herod

Carmen Giannattasio ............ Salome

Julia Gertseva ................... Herodias

Zoran Todorovich .... John the Baptist

Petri Lindroos .................... Phanuel

Igor Bakan ......................... Vitellius

Thierry Vallier ................ High Priest

Flanders Opera Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Dmitri Jurowski, conductor

ACT ONE takes place in a courtyard of King Herod's palace. A caravan of merchants and slaves has returned from a trading journey, and there's a conflict between groups of Judeans and Samaritans. The squabble is broken up by Phanuel. He's an astrologer and an advisor to Herod's court.

Phanuel then turns to see Salome entering the courtyard. He knows that Salome is actually the daughter of Herod's wife, Herodias, from her first marriage. Salome is unaware of this. All she knows is that her mother abandoned her long ago — and she's been looking for her with no success. During her search, she's also fallen in love with the charismatic religious leader John the Baptist.

When Phanuel and Salome leave, Herod and Herodias enter. John the Baptist has insulted Herodias, saying her marriage is invalid and calling her a "Jezebel." She wants revenge for the insults, and demands John's execution. Herod refuses — he's hoping to use John's popularity with the people to help him resist Roman domination. As they argue, John appears in person, wild-eyed and ranting, and frightens the couple away.

John is then joined by Salome, who admits that she loves him. He tells her that a new faith will soon transform the world, and that her love should stay chaste and contemplative.

ACT TWO takes place in Herod's lavish chambers. Babylonian slave women entertain him with a sensuous dance, but it only serves to remind him of his lustful obsession with Salome, whom he's been watching from a distance.

Phanuel enters with a warning that the people are increasingly unhappy with Herod's rule. They've fallen under the spell of John the Baptist, and are eager for the savior he has prophesied. But Herod says he'll leave John in peace — for now. He needs the people united, to resist the Romans. And after that's done, he'll see to John.

The scene changes to a city square, where Herod is urging the citizens to rise up against Rome. But the Roman general Vitellius soon enters with his troops, and quiets the crowd by granting them religious freedom. After that declaration, John enters with a group of followers, including Salome, declaring that true power can only come from God. As the act ends, Vitellius and Herodias enter the palace, but Herod stays behind, transfixed by the presence of Salome.

ACT THREE begins in the home of Phanuel. He's pondering the mystical power of John the Baptist when Herodias arrives with a more earthly concern. She wants to know more about the young woman who seems to have entranced her husband. When she also wonders out loud about the daughter she abandoned, from her first marriage, Phanuel tells her the truth — that Salome is her daughter. But Herodias refuses to believe it, and stomps off in a rage.

The next scene is at the temple, where the Romans have imprisoned John the Baptist, fearing that he might soon inspire a rebellion. Salome has come looking for John. Instead, she encounters Herod. The king has entered the temple planning to defy the Romans by releasing John. When he sees Salome, he approaches her and reveals his passion, but she rejects him, saying she loves someone else.

The temple is soon crowded with people, all clamoring for John. Vitellius tells Herod that it's his duty as king to decide John's fate. Herodias still wants revenge for John's insults, and demands his execution — and so do the priests, who fear that John will put them out of business.

But despite their appeals, Herod seems inclined to free the Baptist, hoping to win support from the people. That is, until Salome speaks up. She says that if John is condemned, she'll die with him. Herod realizes that John is his rival for Salome's love — and with Herodias urging him on, he decides that both Salome and the Baptist should be executed.

As ACT FOUR begins, John is alone, imprisoned in a temple vault. He prays, and seems resigned to his death. Salome enters quietly, and when she again says that she loves him, he realizes that he feels the same way. A group of priests arrives to lead John to the execution block. Salome wants to go with him, but they tear her away from him, and drag John off, leaving Salome behind.

The Romans then host a festival, celebrating their conquest of the city with a victory chant. As it concludes, Salome enters, pleading for John's life, saying that without a mother's love, only John has brought her comfort. She directs her appeal directly to Herodias, knowing that she's the one who was behind John's death sentence.

Herodias begins to waiver. She remembers what Phanuel told her, and decides that Salome really is the daughter she abandoned years ago. The others are also moved by Salome's tearful appeal. But the executioner appears, carrying an axe that's still wet with John's blood.

Seeing that, Salome says Herodias should also die, and draws a knife. Herodias begs for mercy, declaring that she is Salome's mother. But Salome says if that's the truth, she has no more reason to live, and stabs herself to death as the opera ends.

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