Tonight princess Salome …


Claus Guth loudly made himself known by staging Mozart's operas during the Salzburg Festival, and since then his performances – both new stage versions and renewals of previous years – are performed at almost all the largest European venues. His career spans about quarter of a century, and his range of interests is very wide and varied – from Handel and Mozart to Wagner, Strauss and opuses of contemporary composers. Claus Guth stages his second Salome at the Bolshoi. Claus Guth told us about what the new performance will be like, the relevance of the plot and its acute moments, for which he finds “indirect” ways of embodiment on stage on the eve of the premiere.

Claus Guth by Damir Yusupov-an.jpg
Stage Director: Claus Guth

Surely, even today it is not very surprising that this Oscar Wilde play was originally considered "provocative" and banned from production. But with all its scandalousness, its plot makes a bewitching impression. Probably on you too, since you are putting on an opera based on this play?

Usually, when I have to stage an opera (or a play in a dramatical theater), I try not to watch it again in order to preserve my personal vision of it. So it was with Salome. Even before the production in Berlin (Berlin Deutsche Oper in 2016 – ed.) I read a lot, wanting to learn more about the time in which Wilde lived and wrote, and to imagine the cosmos in which all these people would have existed.

The first – and a very strong – impression is definitely created by the strange, absolutely eccentric atmosphere of this play. We get some idea about it from paintings of that time. I think that's where the tendency to interpret this plot with the help of special effects comes from… Of course, it can be interpreted as a creepy story about a woman succumbing to madness. But this will be the most superficial of all possible interpretations. When you begin to investigate why exactly Salome does what she does, and what her stepfather Herod is so afraid of, the story becomes extremely interesting.

There is always a mystery lurking behind Salome’s beautiful appearance. Who is she – a victim of the circumstances in which she found herself upon her birth? Or an angel of destruction, deadly to herself and others?

As a director, I like material where there are things left unspoken: riddles can be solved, and illogical moves force you to think associatively, provoking creative finds. There is more reality in this material than in a school textbook. To me, Salome is a hostage to a very patriarchal system. She grew up in an environment completely detached from the real world. Her constricted environment has always been dominated by her stepfather, who probably had an unhealthy relationship with his wife (Herodias), and from the very beginning perceived Salome as an obscure object of desire. Unconsciously, still being a child, she felt something sick and wrong in the relationships of the people around her. And with the onset of adolescence she began to distance herself from her parents, and the "gap" between them grew. And suddenly she hears the speech of Jochanaan, who talks about her family, vocalising her own thoughts. Meeting Jochanaan is a decisive step to the side for her, which gives her the ability to look at her surroundings from a distance. And also to realize how great her need for freedom is. But to achieve this, it is necessary to destroy Herodes’s world.

Returning to the beginning to the question, my answer is: yes, she is definitely a victim. But a victim who becomes a criminal. And according to my version, at the end, she is liberated.

Liberation at the cost of death?

Yes, she finds Herodes’s weak spot, and confronts him face-to-face with his greatest fear. She demands the only thing that he cannot, does not want to give her. She mentally destroys him, forcing him to sacrifice Jochanaan, from whom she had learned so much.

This seems like a very modern story to me. Here and now, we can literally feel how the world outside our window becomes different: a global pandemic, climate change, political change … Those in power feel the instability, and try to protect themselves from outside influences. And at the same time they are consumed by fear …

Nevertheless, I present this story in the aesthetics of the turn of the XIX-XX centuries, when Wilde’s play was created. It is after all also a kind of "time for demolition"- the time of the birth of psychoanalysis, discovery of the world of the subconscious, exposure of the deceit and viciousness of Victorian society. These topics were discovered just then, but they remain relevant to this day. For me, it would be too banal to transfer the plot to a modern aesthetic.

And is the place of action conditional or does it have to be connected to certain associations?

Everything happens in a real palace, but it is interesting for me to work with techniques, like collage, and a little in the style of surrealism. For example, to intersperse some kinds of "mistakes" into an obviously realistic decoration: masks suddenly appearing, strange animals, an unexpectedly opening hatch and so on. This technique is similar to that used in Max Ernst’s paintings (German avant-garde artist – ed.). I mean the repeating motif of semi-human-semi-animals, which momentarily transforms a specific situation, introducing an unexpected metaphorical and symbolic voice to it.

I’ve already had the experience of staging Salome, albeit in a completely different version. And of course, when I found my own concept, I watched several different performances. The main thing that this experience taught me is that it is necessary to find the right "degree" of the abstract component. Too many inexplicable, irrational breaks occur for the performance to look aesthetically pleasing, be ideally beautiful and "harmless". Finding the right balance between realism and abstraction – that is my current task.

Salome's famous dance is considered another daunting task for an opera director. How do you go about it?

The original idea of the dance was to create disarray among the public. Break a taboo by showing the naked body. These means will no longer produce the desired effect on the modern viewer. But fortunately there is another great opportunity in theatre that allows you to combine events, happening at different times: real time and the “time of memories''. Through dancing, Salome tells her stepfather her story of growing up. And in order to convey it the right way, I needed new characters: Herodes’s double and a young Salome... How is the “Dance of the Seven Veils” usually performed? Robes fall off one by one - and, finally, the last one, by falling away, reveals a naked body. There is an expression: "to lift the veil of secrecy". Here I demonstrate the seven stages exposing the truth. That is the essence of the dance for me.

Wilde's savory language is literally reflected in Strauss’s music: bright,expressive, full of dissonances, and unusual orchestral effects. Is it convenient for you to work with this material?

I rely on music more than I do on words. Strauss is one of my favorite composers, and I’ve staged him a lot. I never cease to be amazed: in his life he is so sober, down to earth, even as if a little philistine, but when you listen to his music, you suddenly discover so much about human psychology, primarily the psychology of a woman! Where does that come from for him? If you listen closely, dangerous abysses lurk behind the musical beauty of Strauss.

Salome-Asmik Grigorian by Damir Yusupov-an.jpg
Asmik Grigorian (Salome)

Dance of passion at "the breakage of times"

The biblical legend about a beautiful Jewish princess, who demanded the head of a prophet from King Herod as a reward for a dance, occupied the minds and excited the fantasy of many generations of writers and artists. At the turn of the XIX and XX centuries, the plot experienced a new round of popularity and brought many works to life, including "Salome" – the poem by Joseph Heywood and the unfinished poem "Herodias" by Stephen Mallarmé; the short story "Herodias" by Gustave Flaubert, which inspired the creation of the eponymous operas by Jules Massenet; Joris Karl Huysmans’ novel "On the contrary", which contains lines dedicated to the paintings of Gustave Moreau "Salome" and "The Appearance of Salome").

But the play by Oscar Wilde, who turned to the story of Salome in 1891, surpassed the liberties of everyone’s imagination. Under his pen, a legend is turned into a kind of literary provocation: the seductive beauty Salome was endowed with a sensual affinity bordering on pathology. The play in which passion and death are idealized, and their incomprehensible and overwhelming attraction reaches its climax in the finale, when the princess kisses the severed head of the prophet on the lips, sin order to then meet her own death, became a symbol of the end of a beautiful era. Written in French, it was published in Paris in 1893, and a year later in London – in the English translation by Alfred Douglas – (with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley). Recognized as blasphemous by the censorship, it was banned from being staged in england. The first performance was carried out in Paris in 1896.

"Scherzo with a Fatal End"

Strauss was acquainted with the literary novelty in the German translation of Hedwig Lachman, which was published in the literary and artistic journal “Wiener Rundschau” in 1900 (it was published as a separate book in 1902). The magazine’s editor Anton Lindner sent the composer several scenes from the play, offering his services as a librettist. But Strauss began to write music directly for German text, shortening it as necessary – as the Frenchman Debussy did before, having also composed “Pelléas and Melisande” based on the prose text of Maeterlinck (1902).

The beginning of the work on the opera coincided with the viewing of the performance in the Berlin Max Reinhardt Theater (1903) with the famous Gertrude Eisoldt as Salome. In her play, which was compared by contemporaries to a “living symbol the most mysterious and amazingly monstrous", the music of his future opera came to him.

The following excerpt from a newspaper review may serve as an attempt to express not only Ms. Isoldt's performance, but also Salome’s musical portrait, in words: “The sensual rhythm of all her members, the insinuating speech of her thighs, vibrating hands that all turned into a nerves of love, the sliding, the gentle game of trembling fingers that feel the body of the Baptist, touch him for a breath and immediately step back, in a mad tension of desire and endless melody of excitement, add in to this sensuality and cruelty, the tone of a sulking child, spoiled and capricious – in all this the game was demonically authentic” (Neue Badische Landeszeitung, 30.09.1903).

"How beautiful Princess Salome is tonight!" – with this phrase, Strauss begins the opera – and radically rethinks it as a genre. He refuses the overture and any introduction in general, immersing the listener in the atmosphere of an intoxicating musical orgy from the first measures. The Act goes without interruption, which further enhances its intense drama, compresses the density of stage time and enhances the extreme emotional condition. The huge role given to the orchestra in this opera, and the novelty of the music, prompted contemporaries to make comparisons like "a symphonic poem with singing", "an orchestral piece with an explanatory theatrical performance of opera singers ", and the author himself described it simply as a "scherzo with a fatal end".

As expected, the opera was banned from screenings at imperial stages "for religious and moral reasons” and was initially presented to a very small audience. However, the scandalous nature of Wilde’s drama generated a buzz. The premiere on 9 December 1905 at the Dresden Opera was a crushing success.

The performances at the Graz Theater (May 16, 1906) were conducted by the composer himself, which made them even more attractive to the public. And what an audience! Among them were the greatest composers of the era – Gustav Mahler, Alexander Tsemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg (for whom the clavier of Salome, by his own admission, became a "tabletop book" for several years), Alban Berg and Giacomo Puccini.

"One of the most significant works of our time" (Gustav Mahler) came about in Vienna in a roundabout way. In 1907 it was performed by the artists of the Breslau Theater (now known as Wroclaw) during a concert tour on the stage of the German folk theater and withstood twenty-four performances! The opera caused a storm of controversy in the press, and the Viennese audience was "hypnotized by horror":

“The immediate effect that this composition had during the first performance was such that it took the audience’s breath away with its novelty and courage..." (musical critic Roland Tenshet).

"This orchestra can do anything, [...] you see, hear, touch and smell thanks to its magical power" (the famous Viennese critic Julius Korngold).

The appearance of Salome symbolized the birth of a new musical style – expressionism. Its author, who previously had a reputation as a composer and symphonist, received universal recognition in the operatic genre, while the commercial success gave him financial independence. Of course, Salome won the stage with great difficulty, but only in 1906 it was staged in at least sixteen theaters, including in Milan and Turin, where Strauss again stood at the conductor’s stand. In 1907-08 a premiere did not take place in New York (it was banned after the open dress rehearsal) and took place in Paris, where the "monstrous masterpiece" (Romain Rolland) sounded in the author's French edition, and in Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague and Warsaw…

The production of Salome in Russia became possible after the revolution. The opera first appeared on the stage of the Leningrad State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in 1924. (directed by Iosif Lapitsky, artist Mikhail Kurilko). On June 11, 1925 the premiere took place at the Bolshoi Theater, and the performance was produced by the same directors. Valentina Pavlovskaya shone in the title role, while Vyacheslav Suk conducted the orchestra. The opera was performed in Russian and was preserved in Bolshoi’s repertoire until 1929.

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Music Director: Tugan Sokhiev. Photo by Damir Yusupov

The current production at the Bolshoi has assembled a brilliant cast.
Salome is performed by Asmik Grigorian (Lithuania). In 2018 she caused a sensation with her debut in this role at the Salzburg Festival and was given the Austrian Music Theatre Award. For the first time on our stage, Ann Petersen, the leading soloist of the Royal Danish Opera, will perform the main part. Operas by Wagner and Strauss make up the lion’s share of her repertoire. She performs the roles from these operas on the world’s largest stages.

The part of Herodes belongs to a soloist of the opera troupe, Roman Muravitsky, and a famous German singer, Vincent Wolfsteiner (it is his debut at the Bolshoi), whose interpretations of the role (last season’s productions in Berlin and Vienna) remain critically acclaimed.

The part of Jochanaan is performed by Oliver Zwarg (Germany), the central place in his repertoire is taken by the leading parts in the operas by Wagner and Strauss, and by Thomas Mayer, who has achieved success at home, in Germany, as well as beyond it. He has performed in the productions by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, La Scala in Milan, the Bavarian State Opera (Munich), the Paris Opera, the Berlin and Hamburg State Operas.

Anna Maria Chiuri, a famous Italian singer, is also participating in the new production. She made her first appearance as Herodias at the Salzburg Festival, together with Ms Grigorian, and had great success too. Herodias is also performed by a soloist of the Bolshoi, Elena Zelenskaya.

The premiere run of the production takes place on the 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th of February and the 2nd, 3rd of March at the Historic Stage of the theatre.