Richard Strauss: ‘the greatest genius of the age’

Richard Strauss: ‘the greatest genius of the age’ Portrait of Richard Strauss by Max Liebermann (1918).

Thanks to its intrepid artistic director, Fergus Sheil, Irish National Opera is currently midway through its latest production – Richard Strauss’ single act Salome at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

A concert performance in Wexford’s National Opera House on March 3 preceded the fully staged production by Bruno Ravella that opened at BGET last Tuesday. Further performances are scheduled for tonight (Thursday, March 14) with the final one on Saturday, March 16.

Sinéad Campbell-Wallace undertakes the highly taxing title role with Munich tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner as Herod, Imelda Drumm as Herodias and Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson as John the Baptist.

There is, of course, an Irish connection to the opera in that it is based on Oscar Wilde’s French play Salome first seen at the Comédie-Parisienne in Paris on February 11, 1896. Greatly impressed by what he saw, Strauss asked his friend poetess Hedwig Lachmann to translate the libretto into German. The end result brought Salome to Dresden’s Opera House on December 9, 1905.

It is interesting that the composer, working with musicologist Romain Rolland in 1907, wrote an alternative French setting that required some revisions to his score, but this version lapsed into relative oblivion albeit it had revivals in Lyon in 1990 and Liège in 2011.

Wilde himself felt his play’s formal structure was well suited to musical adaptation remarking that it contained “refrains whose recurring motifs make it so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad”.

Early performances were not without controversy. The original soprano, Marie Wittich, refused to perform the lascivious Dance of the Seven Veils with her place in this scene being taken by a dancer. Indeed, anytime I have seen the opera abroad this has been the case with the most recent in Salzburg finding the prima donna doing nothing as the Vienna Philharmonic wallowed in Strauss’ extravagant score.

Following its Dresden première Salome quickly found its way into the repertoires of some 50 opera houses. However, Vienna was adamant. There would be “no Salome here”. Even Mahler failed to gain the Viennese censor’s consent and it was 1918 before the Austrian capital heard the piece.

The authorities in Graz were more amenable with Salome played there in 1906. Berg, Puccini, Mahler and Schönberg were among the audience.

London also proved difficult with the Lord Chamberlain’s office banning the opera mainly because of its depiction of biblical scenes on stage. The veto was eventually lifted in 1910 when Thomas Beecham conducted the work at Covent Garden.

Salome had had its first Metropolitan Opera NY performance in 1907 to mixed reviews. One in favour was impressed by “the power displayed by the composer” while another against considered the opera “repugnant to Anglo-Saxon minds”. When Elgar, visiting New York at the time, had been requested to lead the objections to Salome he refused stating that Richard Strauss was “the greatest genius of the age”.

Under pressure from wealthy patrons, on whom the Met depended for almost all its revenue, further planned performances were cancelled and Salome was not staged there again until 1934.