I remember reading recently that as far as we can make any historical sense at all out of the biblical story on which this opera is based, the real Salome was likely just a kid whose dancing was less a strip tease than a cute little caper. Part of me likes this possibility because it’d be sort of satisfying to know that the ‘dangerous Jezebel’ aspect of the story was read into it by later commentators who succeeded in finding in it what they wanted to. But neither the capering child nor the zealous commenters would make much of an opera. (Well, maybe the zealous commentators. But it’d be a very different opera.)
Because the flip side to making Salome into yet another temptress figure is that she can have a reason for wanting Jochanaan’s head on a platter. As she repeats several times toward the opera’s climax, this is not her mother’s wish, it’s hers. What she wants and the reason she wants it may be a little gruesome and a bit of a cliche (hell hath no fury, etc.) but at least she gets to 1. do something 2. for a reason. Besides, my sympathy for self-important prophets is limited.
This is a production from 1990, and the video in places is a little grainy. (And the sound. I don’t know what the deal was with the sound on this – I think it was an effect of microphone placement, but there are some unexpected leaps and drops in the volume, and the balance between singers and orchestra is not always consistent.) The production itself is in that middle space between literal and abstract. There is a tower, with some curling staircases – one of which does not seem to go anywhere – on one side and a part of Herod’s palace on the other. At the very top is the full moon. Costumes are vaugely “ancient world” but sometimes not – Herodias looks like she wandered in from a slightly garish production of Madame Butterfly. And the soldiers! If you like looking at men’s legs, you might like this production. All Herod’s soldiers go clumping about in the short shorts version of armor, with plenty of exposed chest as well. Many of them appear to have been thoroughly waxed. (In the sense of hair removal – they have not been buffed to a high gloss or anything like that.)
Salome (Catherine Malfitano) has some interesting moments with the soldiers. Their mildly sexualized costumes are there for a reason. After Salome’s first encounter with Jochanaan, where she tells him how pretty he is and he responds along the lines of (to put it slightly anachronistically) “no thanks, baby, I’m married to Jesus,” Salome is upset, and tries to rush away, cringing, but her way out is blocked at every turn by these soldiers, who bump up against her and leer. She can’t run away from the nightmarish sexual drama she has begun: and during the orchestral section that follows (it begins with a bassoon line over tremolos in the strings) she turns into a woman possessed. Malfitano’s Salome is not vixen-like or particularly girlish: she is terrifying. (She occasionally goes in for a bit of eye-rolling that reminds me of the Princess of Spain in the first series of Blackadder, but these moments are brief – and the general drift of the performance is definitely, as noted, terrifying.)
And in a sense of course she has to be terrifying, or else the final section, with Salome’s long moment with the head, would make no sense. But what Malfitano does very effectively is to show how Salome gets there.