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A More Spiritual Salome: Massenet's 'Hérodiade'

'Herodiade' at Vlaamse Opera, Belgium.
Annemie Augustijns
courtesy of Vlaamse Opera
'Herodiade' at Vlaamse Opera, Belgium.

When Richard Strauss' sensational opera Salome was premiered in Dresden in 1905, its lurid story provoked a moral outcry — and it also sold a boatload of tickets. Kaiser Wilhelm II declared that the opera would do Strauss "a lot of damage." Strauss replied that the "damage" had paid for his new house!

But the success of Strauss' drama may have had the opposite effect on the popularity of another vivid opera based on the same story: Jules Massenet's Hérodiade.

Strauss based Salome on the controversial 1891 play by Oscar Wilde. In turn, Wilde had literary inspiration of his own, a story by Gustave Flaubert about the biblical figure Herodias, who was the second wife of King Herod Antipas — and the mother of Salome.

It was Flaubert's version of the Salome story that inspired Massenet, who completed Hérodiade in 1881. He was hoping for a premiere in Paris, but the director of the Paris Opera found the story "incendiary." So the opera's first production took place in Brussels later that same year and it was an immediate sensation, running for more than 50 performances. Just two months later, it was heard at La Scala in Milan, and by the early 1890s, the opera had made it all the way to New Orleans.

Yet by now, Hérodiade plays second, third or even fourth fiddle among Massenet's operas, after works such as Manon, Werther and Cendrillon. And that may be thanks to Richard Strauss; compared to Salome, Massenet's opera can seem almost tame.

In most versions of the Salome story, including the one in the Bible, it's Salome herself who gets the juiciest role. She's the seductive teenager who urges Herod to execute John the Baptist. In Wilde's play and in Strauss' opera, that's because John rejects her passionate advances.

But erotic obsession also plays a key role in Hérodiade, with Herod's lust for Salome taking center stage. And while Massenet portrays Salome's longings as more spiritual than sensual, he also lets that work for her. Salome actually seduces John in the opera's final act — and it may have been that element that got the opera banned in Paris.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Hérodiade from the Flanders Opera in Ghent, Belgium. The stars are baritone Philippe Rouillon as Herod, soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Salome and tenor Zoran Todorovich as John, in a production led by conductor Dmitri Jurowski.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.