Sensuous, Shocking and Sensational: Richard Strauss's 'Salome'

The Story of 'Salome'

Strauss's opera has four scenes, all presented in one long act, lasting about an hour and 40 minutes.

Scene One is on a terrace outside Herod's palace, where the birthday celebration is in full swing. There's a cistern in the background, where Jokanaan -- John the Baptist -- is being held under guard. The young military captain, Narraboth, sees Salome in the distance, and comments on her beauty. A page tells him not to look at her, or even think about her -- fearing that "something terrible" will happen as a result. But Narraboth is obviously infatuated, and can't stop watching her.

In Scene Two, Salome is tired of the party, and annoyed by the way her stepfather, Herod, keeps leering at her. She leaves the palace and approaches Narraboth, who urges her to return to the party. But John is heard speaking from inside the cistern, making dire prophecies. Salome is fascinated, and wants to meet the prisoner. Narraboth discourages this, but Salome seems obsessed with idea. Salome knows exactly how Narraboth feels about her; when she turns on all the charms, he relents.

In Scene Three, John is released from the cistern so Salome can see him. A first, she finds him repellent -- but she's also drawn to him. Even when he denounces her, she’s determined to speak with him. She sings three songs, praising the beauty of his body, then his hair, then his mouth. Eventually, she demands to kiss him. John refuses. But Salome persists, even when he calls her the "the daughter of an incestuous mother." Narraboth is so upset by Salome's brazen behavior with John the Baptist that he abruptly kills himself, falling dead between them. John continues to refuse Salome, and returns to the cistern.

Scene Four is back at the Palace, where the birthday party is still underway. As Herod and Herodias enter, Herod slips on Narraboth's blood. He fears that's a bad omen, and orders the body removed -- while remembering Narraboth's infatuation with Salome.

Herod himself has similar feelings for his stepdaughter. He invites her to drink with him, but she refuses, saying she's not thirsty. He then wants her to dine with him, and she says she's not hungry. When he offers her the seat beside him, she refuses that, as well.

Outside, in the cistern, John can still be heard preaching. Herodias demands that he be silenced. Herod says John the Baptist is a great prophet, and a group of Jews argue about theology, debating the significance of John's prophecies.

Herod returns his attention to Salome, asking her to dance for him. She repeatedly refuses the request. But then she says she might consider it -- if Herod will give her anything she wants in return. He agrees and Salome does the sensuous Dance of the Seven Veils, with Herod becoming more and more enthralled.

Salome finishes by falling at Herod's feet. He quickly offers to honor his promise, and grant her anything she wishes. In a sweet voice, she makes her request. She wants a silver platter, she says. And on it, the head of John the Baptist.

Herodias is pleased by her daughter's request. But Herod is stunned, and says she must ask for something else. He offers her jewels -- emeralds, diamonds, rubies, turquoise, topaz -- and even offers her the sacred veil of the temple. But Salome says none of that will do. She repeatedly demands the head of John the Baptist. As Herod becomes more and more agitated, Herodias takes his hand, and removes his "death ring" -- the ring that officially confirms a death sentence. She gives it to a guard, who takes it to the royal executioner.

Salome goes to the cistern, leans over, and listens. The music emulates her anxious breathing. At first, she's not sure what's going on, until she hears thud, as something hits the floor in the darkness. Then, the executioner's hand appears, holding John's head -- on a silver platter.

Salome seizes it, and begins one of the most intensely passionate sequences in opera. It's as though she's part of a lustful love duet, but with one voice silent. She talks to John, saying his head belongs to her. That his mouth is also hers, and that now she can kiss it. She does kiss him, and then says the taste was bitter. But she says it wasn't blood she tasted, instead suggesting that love itself has a bitter taste.

As Salome continues to rhapsodize about John's head, and their kiss, Herod turns away in disgust. He orders the guards to kill Salome, and they crush her to death under their shields as the opera ends.