Shocking audiences through the ages


March 16, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With congressional hearings on indecency leading to new protections of public sensibilities (at least on TV and radio), and a hit, Bible-based movie generating vociferous debate on anti-Semitism and artistic license, it couldn't be a better time to encounter Richard Strauss' opera Salome or Bach's St. John Passion.

Both works - the Baltimore Opera Company has a well-worth-catching production of Salome running through Sunday; the Annapolis Chorale will perform the Bach piece on Saturday - raise some of the same issues that have been swirling around Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

In its own way, Salome set off almost as much controversy in its early years as the Gibson film has. It didn't help that the source material for the 1905 opera was a play by the still-notorious Oscar Wilde.

Taking his cue from fanciful treatments of the Salome/Herod/John the Baptist story in the New Testament by writer Gustave Flaubert and painter Gustave Moreau, Wilde created a hyper-poetic version of what happened and why. A teen-age girl's sexual awakening, her stepfather's lechery, her mother's dark past - all became pivotal elements in the drama.

Strauss shortened the text, but not the bite of the play, right down to its gruesome "I have kissed thy mouth" finale. His incredible music - evocative, ravishing, sometimes almost atonal - intensifies the text in ways that Wilde would have loved. But some people who first heard and saw the opera went into shock.

So did some of the singers. The first Salome, Marie Wittich, initially refused to sing the role, declaring, "I'm a decent woman." But she went ahead with it and shared in the 38 curtain calls on opening night in Dresden. Although opposition to the new opera from critics and clerics did not keep it from reaching other German cities, the Kaiser would allow it in Berlin only after the producers agreed to show the Star of Bethlehem twinkling on a backdrop at the very end. (That meant the star was about 30 years late, but no one told the Kaiser.)

In England, where Wilde's play had been banned because of a medieval law forbidding the depiction of biblical figures onstage, the opera was performed for the first time in 1910 only after all the libretto had been absurdly altered. John the Baptist became a prophet named Mattaniah in ancient Greece.

Salome arrived at New York's Metropolitan Opera House exactly as Strauss intended it in 1907 - and lasted exactly one night. Outraged patrons demanded that the company shut the production down.

Critics at the 1907 performance couldn't have agreed more. The New York Tribune writer lamented "the moral stench with which Salome fills the nostrils of humanity. ... The orchestra shrieked its final horror and left listeners staring at each other with smarting eyeballs and wrecked nerves."

No wonder Salome didn't get her veils in the Met's door again until the 1930s.

For all the railing against the opera's lurid title character and her cranial craving, there weren't a lot of complaints about the potentially offensive portrayal of Jews in the opera. As the Jews argue various religious points and dispute the Baptist's prophet status, Strauss piles most of their lines on top of each other to create a cacophony that tries Herod's patience. (In Wilde's play, they at least get to speak one at a time, and with some eloquence.)

In a pre-echo of the sympathetic portrayal of Pilate in Gibson's Passion, the opera's Herod is reluctant to turn the Baptist over to the Jews.

Today's opera audiences don't seem too uncomfortable with any of this. I suspect many people don't even notice the way the Jews are depicted in Salome, just as some folks apparently don't smell even the faintest whiff of anti-Semitism in Gibson's movie.

Like that movie, Bach's St. John Passion has its literal side, quoting directly from the Gospel, word for word. And a lot of those words paint an ugly portrait of the Jews. Bach treats these passages with a startling theatricality. When the Jews cry "Crucify him" - Kreuzige, in German - "Bach uses the word over and over and over," says J. Ernest Green, music director of the Annapolis Chorale. "It eats into your ears. It's very hard to listen to that. This is a very angry setting of the Passion. In Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the line is more poetic - `Let him be crucified.' "

For all of the brutal aspects to the St. John Passion, there is relief. Just as in his sublime St. Matthew Passion, Bach inserts reflective sections between the Gospel verses. And none of the reflections has to do with charges of deicide against the Jews. Rather, each member of the faithful is reminded that "I and my sins" have caused the suffering of Jesus.

Anyone feeling battered by Gibson's ultra-violent vision of the Passion can take comfort in Bach's treatment of the same basic material. The composer doesn't gloss over the pain and cruelty in the story, but he doesn't let that be the principal lesson to take home, either.

Bach never loses sight of the redemptive message in the Passion. Ultimately, like all great art inspired by any part of the Bible over the millennia, his creation rises above the denominational to strike universal chords.

He did this again, even more profoundly, with his Mass in B minor, the ultimate musical expression of open-tent religion. Fortunately, that work, too, will make an appearance locally this season - the Baltimore Choral Arts Society will perform the Mass later this month.

At a time when religious views divide human beings with a Middle Ages-worthy myopia, the salve of Bach's music is more welcome than ever.

"Salome" is at the Lyric Opera House Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. 410-727-6000. "St. John Passion" will be performed Saturday at St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis. 410-263-1906. Bach's Mass in B minor will be performed March 28 at Goucher College. 410-523-7070.

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