Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.
On December 17, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast over radio its Saturday afternoon performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Salome has held its own in the Met’s repertoire since 1934. It is, of all of the composer’s operas, second only to Der Rosenkavalier in number of performances put on by the company, and far ahead of Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Arabella (see our posts of April 14, 2014 and December 6, 2016), and the rare Capriccio and Die Agyptische Helena. But between its premiere on January 16, 1907 and its return on January 13, 1934, it was entirely absent from the 39th Street stage. Here is the story.
The Met general manager was Heinrich Conried, born in Silesia. He had worked in the theater in Berlin as an actor and stage manager, and had emigrated to the U.S. as a young man. Conried had come to work in the bustling world of German theatre in New York. In 1903, after significant success in creating a German repertory company, he was appointed Met general manager with no experience and precious little knowledge of grand opera.
In the summer of 1906, Conried found himself in Dresden where he attended a performance of Strauss’s recently completed one-act opera, Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s notorious French play. On his return to New York, Conried corresponded with the famously greedy Strauss for the rights to perform Salome at the Met, rights that Strauss granted for an exorbitant fee. Conried had the bad judgment to schedule a semi-public dress rehearsal on a Sunday in January, at about the time the audience of socialites and critics would be arriving at the theater straight from their devotions in church. His Salome, Olive Fremstad, was a fiercely engaged performer, bent on as realistic a depiction of her characters as possible. She had taken the trouble to visit the city morgue to ascertain the weight of a human head so as to carry the severed head of John the Baptist, made of paper maché, and resembling the baritone who played the role of the Prophet, with the requisite effort.
At the rehearsal, Fremstad proceeded to the lip of the stage, as the press reported, to “kiss the gelid lips” of John. She played the whole of the role of the depraved daughter of Herodias in the same spirit. Two days later, at the first performance, Fremstad repeated her act, with only somewhat less fervor. Nonetheless, as was reported, women swooned, men left their seats during “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” and the Executive Committee of the Met board, headed by J. P. Morgan, was up in arms. The board met to vote unanimously that the remaining scheduled performances be cancelled, despite the protestations of Conried and others. And so Salome danced just once on the Met stage before she was banned for twenty-seven years. What would Morgan and his cronies have thought of the 2004 performances in which Karita Mattila stood in the altogether, having shed the last of her seven veils?
This Saturday’s Salome is Patricia Racette. The list of nearly thirty Met singers who have essayed the arduous role of the Judaean princess spans a wide gamut of female voices, from mezzos Grace Bumbry and Maria Ewing to lyric Catherine Malfitano. Fremstad was a dramatic soprano. Among the other Brünnhildes and Isoldes who lent their heroic timbre to Salome have been Marjorie Lawrence, Astrid Varnay, Hildegard Behrens, Gwyneth Jones, and the dominant Wagnerian of the second half of the 20th century, Birgit Nilsson. The composer, who himself wished that Salome be sung by a youthful voice, tried to persuade Elisabeth Schumann to perform it, and even offered to alter the orchestration and transpose a number of passages. Schumann, the ideal light, high soprano for his Rosenkavalier Sophie, wisely declined. One Met star, Teresa Stratas, had the ideal sound and temperament, if not the volume. She never sang the role on stage. But she did commit her compelling portrayal to video. Here are two excerpts from the final scene, conducted by Strauss specialist, Karl Böhm.
We conclude with the art of the sensational Bulgarian soprano, Ljuba Welitsch. Her debut as Salome in 1949 set off one of loudest and longest ovations in Met history. Welitsch’s voice, at once crystalline and warm, cuts through the galvanic instrumentation to convey the youth and the sexual frenzy of Salome with unflagging power. Here are the final moments from a commercial recording made in the 1940s.