‘But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.’ The event that leads to the beheading of John the Baptist is related in a few brief sentences in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. The step-daughter of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, is as yet nameless here, and her egregious demand does not arise from her own will but that of her mother Herodias, who hates the troublesome prophet. What will make Salome into a myth is, however, clearly addressed: the act of displaying herself in the dance to the eyes of others, and with this the fascination of the onlooker and the power that the object of his gaze exercises over him. It seems as if centuries of artists, in particular painters, have felt the sober account of the biblical narrative as a never-failing source of inspiration to give the story sensory concreteness and enrich it in the most diverse detail.
In late 19th-century French literature the figure of Salome became a popular subject as a femme fatale and the epitome of perverted lust. The climax was reached with Oscar Wilde’s tragedy Salomé, written in French and breathing the spirit of the fin de siècle. Expanding the original constellation of gazes, Wilde weaves a whole web of obsessive and unreturned gazes between the figures, as the expression or origin of desire. Can one evade the gaze, as Jokanaan believes when he attempts to forbid Salome to look at him? Can the gaze be denied and the word alone be trusted? Wilde’s tragedy unfolds between the oppositions of eye and ear, physicality and spirituality, sound and word, looking and insight.
When Richard Strauss began to set an abridged German translation of this scandal-ridden play to music in 1903 he faced the challenge of conveying these antitheses in the medium of music — or indeed of relativizing them.
The Italian director Romeo Castellucci, a profound investigator of the power of seeing, also in the sense of that by which we are seen, explores the darknesses of this ‘tragedy of the gaze’. An artist with an exceptional ability to create images that pulsate with knowledge of the unconscious, he approaches Salome by assuming the place hosting the theatrical action as his point of departure. By means of an intervention in the classic appearance of the Felsenreitschule with its arcades hewn from the rock of the Mönchsberg the impression of suffocation is suggested. It could be perceived as the objective correlative to the feeling of oppression that surrounds the protagonist on all sides and which pervades the music and the game of catch played out by the repetition of words throughout the libretto.
The stone is reflected on a golden surface. A universe gleaming with the light of an oriental realm encircles, with haughty grace, a potential world — the court of Herod — that is impotent. Always on the verge of acting, it is never capable of fully incarnating itself and completing an action.
The figure of Salome — in the extraordinary interpretation by Asmik Grigorian — becomes the true pivot and is transformed into the fire that animates all that is present. Her dance manifests itself as a counter-rhythmic interruption: the inertia now affecting the élan vital comes across in a form of inaction pertaining to the realm of the inorganic.
Something manure-like reveals the animal dimension of Jokanaan, a figure that governs a nocturnal dreadfulness. In his universe spiritual and luminous elements are mixed up with and imprisoned in bodily and earthly ones, as part of a general confusion between human and bestial forms.
In this context, in which sublime elements exist alongside the mundane, Romeo Castellucci’s staging foregrounds less the yearning for the trophy of Jokanaan’s head than the act of cutting, cutting away; not the object of desire, which is lost forever, but the touching loneliness of a female figure for which we feel sympathy. And it is here that the act of looking, by virtue of its ultimate interdiction, plunges into the abyss of desire.
Christian Arseni, Piersandra Di Matteo
Translation: Sophie Kidd