By Bob Bernard
Much more compelling than von Weber’s 1819 “Invitation to the Dance” piano piece was Herod’s appeal to his stepdaughter Salome in Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera Salome.
Requested by Herod for pleasure on his birthday, Salome accepts – with the ulterior motive of insisting upon her reward being the severed head of the Jochanaan (John the Baptist), the prophet who had rejected her advances. Based upon the Gospels of Mark [6:21-29] and Matthew [14:6-11], the story has inspired interpretations in film, dance and, of course, opera.
Teresa Stratas and Hans Hopf
The above is taken from a 1974 production in Vienna starring Teresa Stratas (Salome) and Hans Hopf (Herod).
Rita Hayworth, a beautiful Salome in Columbia Pictures’ 1953 Biblical epic, made for an attractive, albeit somewhat “tame” Salome.
Hollywood favored happy endings in its 1950 films, so Rita danced with the avowed purpose of attempting to save John the Baptist, and, at the film’s conclusion, paired with her boyfriend Stuart Granger a (newly converted-to-Christianity) Roman soldier, joined the assembly for The Sermon on the Mount.
More artistically satisfying was the flamenco-styled dance of Aída Gómez, performed in Carlos Saura’s 2002 film Salome with the Dos y Danza Dance Troupe, accompanied by the flamenco guitar of José Fernández Torres (a.k.a. Tomatito), playing the music of Roque Baños. At the dance’s conclusion, Ms. Gomez’ request for the head of Jochanaan was particularly succinct.
For the opera, filling the role of a perfect Salome is basically impossible. Ideally, she resembles a sexy teenager, is able to generate stage movements that match up with the dramatic thrusts of Strauss’s music, and also must be a world-class dramatic soprano. For the independently-recorded soundtrack of the 1974 Vienna Philharmonic production, Teresa Stratas (then in her mid-thirties) was a very good fit, her dancing at the start of the seduction scene sometimes supplemented choreographically with a quartet of attendants.
Catherine Malfitano got into "The Dance of the Seven Veils"" for the 1990 production at Deutsche Oper Berlin, having her choreography (credit: Bernd Schindowski) visually mimic closely (even down to her fingertips) the variations in Strauss’ music, but eschewing any supplemental involvement from others on stage.
Concluding the dance for the Met’s 2004 production was Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, freely improvising, first, a pole dance, and then a very close-up-and-personal lap dance.
Dr. Brian Large, the director of the 1990 production from Deutsche Oper Berlin, recognized the prominent, expressive eyes of Catherine Malfitano and had the camera’s display be cropped extremely “tighter” than what would normally be “standard” framing, as Salome ‘had her way’ with Jochanaan’s severed head. Every twitch and every pucker had its foundation in the music:
With Jochanaan’s mouth now possessed, the Salome of Catherine Malfitano anticipated further depravity; Karita Mattila’s Salome looked to be exhausted.
Whether we view it as a means to abrogate any further perversion by Malfitano’s Salome or as a mercy killing of Mattila’s exhausted, depleted creature, the closing order of Herod is absolutely necessary.
“Man töte dieses Weib!“
[Kill That Woman!]