Richard Strauss brought an extravagant intensity to his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé. The glitter of Herod’s palace, the flicker of torches and the pale light of the moon are all vividly evoked in a sumptuously rich score. When Salome had its premiere in Dresden in 1905 it received 38 curtain calls and established Strauss as a first-rank opera composer. Gustav Mahler called it ‘one of the most important works of our day’.
The opening tableau of David McVicar’s 2008 production for The Royal Opera introduces a world of decadence and injustice. On the upper floor there is a banquet for the elite, while in the grimy kitchen downstairs servants, guards and prostitutes wait to be summoned. Moral and physical decay is reinforced by Es Devlin’s Art Deco-inspired designs. The role of Salome blends innocence, sensuality and violence, and places immense demands on a singer. Strauss famously said the role was ‘written for a 16-year-old with the voice of an Isolde’.
Salome, stepdaughter of Herod, has become obsessed with her father’s prisoner John the Baptist. Herod promises to give her anything she wants if she dances for him. She dances.
Salome demands from Herod the head of John the Baptist. Herod, horrified, gives the order. Salome ecstatically receives her bloody reward.