The other night I watched the New York Metropolitan Opera's 2008 production of Richard Strauss's Salome on DVD. I've been getting into opera for a little while now but this was a far cry from the bel canto stuff I cut my teeth on. It's also the first time I've ever listened to anything by Strauss - and what a place to start! This adaptation of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play is so much more than "just music"; the word Gesamtkunstwerk could have been coined for it. The music is dark, dense and dissonant, the leading role makes incredible physical and mental demands on the singer, and the opera's conclusion is just as shocking, and emotionally devastating, as when it premiered in 1905. The Met's production is stark and relatively minimal, letting nothing detract from the performances - and what performances they are. Surely few can ever have handled the lead role with such aplomb as dynamite Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who dominates the stage for every second she is on it.
Whilst it may seem almost impossible, in light of its content, to believe that this work was written and first performed at the beginning of the last century, in other respects it is clear that the play, with its heady brew of religiosity, eroticism and self-disgust, could really only be a product of the Victorian era. Were Wilde alive today, he might be seen as a bit of a dandy; in his day, he was a dangerous subversive. The powers that be, and the literary establishment, were terrified of him because he represented a kind of liberation for which the world was simply not yet ready - and yet his ideas were perfectly in tune with other cultural and scientific advances of the era, notably the psychoanalysis of Freud and his contemporaries. Salome retains the power to shock both because it is peopled with archetypes and because it speaks to deep-rooted anxieties and desires we all share, but often dare not name.