Richard Strauss composed his world hit Salome to a play by Oscar Wilde; and the latter drew his inspiration from a short story by Flaubert, ‘Herodias’. Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont also based their libretto for Massenet’s opera Herodiade on this story. Neither Wilde nor Milliet and Grémont were very faithful to Flaubert. Whereas the French novelist more or less limited himself to the biblical narrative, enriched with his poetic language and descriptions, the playwright and librettists added entirely new aspects and twists to the story.
Hérodiade was first performed in the Royal Theatre of Brussels on 19 December 1881. Anyone expecting animal eroticism, blood and sweat, as with Richard Strauss, will be disappointed. Massenet’s Salome is a truly innocent and devout girl. When her mother left her to marry Hérode, she was given shelter by Jean (John the Baptist), with whom she fell in love. A love that proved to be mutual.
No opera is complete without complications: Hérode has a crush on Salome, Hérodiade becomes jealous of her and Jean is beheaded. Salome sees Hérodiade as the instigator of all evil and wants to kill her. Hérodiade whispers “I am your mother” and Salome commits suicide.
The music already exudes a hint of the perfume of Massenet’s later works, but with all those choruses, exotic Oriental scenes and elaborate ballet scenes, it is nothing less than a real Grand Opera in the best Meyerbeer tradition.
One of the earliest recorded fragments of the opera is, I think, the famous aria of Hérode ‘Vision Fusitive’ by the French baritone Maurice Renaud, made in 1908:
And from the recording Georges Thill made in 1927, we know what an ideal Jean should sound like:
REGINE CRESPIN 1963
If you are in possession of this performance, you need look no further. It doesn’t get any better than this. There is only one problem: this recording does not exist. At least not of the complete opera.
In 1963, EMI recorded the highlights of Hérodiade with the best French singers of the time (and of today, for that matter) and the answer to the “why not complete ????” will probably never be given.
Georges Prêtre conducts the orchestra of the Theater National de Paris as if his life depends upon it and every role is more than excellently cast.
Regine Crespin sings ‘Il est doux, il est bon’:
Regine Crespin’s Salomé is unequalled and so is Rita Gorr’s Hérodiade. Albert Lance (Jean) shows how that role should really be sung in the tradition of Georges Thill, and for Michel Dens as Hérode we really cannot find the right words. Such singers no longer exist.
Hopefully, Warner will one day release the recording on CD.
MONTSERRAT CABALLÉ (Barcelona 1984)
This recording also may only be obtained via a pirate (or You Tube), but then it is complete and moreover with (admittedly bad) images!
Dunja Vejzovic portrays a deliciously mean Hérodiade and Juan Pons is a somewhat youthful but otherwise fine Hérode. A few years later, he will become one of the best “Hérodes” and you can already hear and see that in this recording.
Montserrat Caballé is a fantastic Salomé, the voice alone makes you believe you are in heaven and José Carreras is very moving as a charismatic Jean.
Below, Carreras sings ‘Ne pouvant réprimer les élans’:
None of the protagonists is really idiomatic, but what a pleasure it is to watch a real Diva (and Divo)! They really don’t make them like that any more
The whole opera on you tube:
RENÉE FLEMING 1994 (Sony 66847)
In the mid-1990s, Herodiade enjoyed a short-lived revival. The opera was then performed in several opera houses and it was even recorded – officially – three times: once in the studio and twice live.
I must admit that I was a bit concerned about Gergiev as the director, but he really did an excellent job. Under his baton the opera sounds like a real Grand Opéra, grand, fiery and compelling.
Plácido Domingo (Jean) is perhaps a touch too heroic, but his voice sounds youthful and contageous, worthy of a true prophet.
Personally, I find Dolora Zajick (Hérodiade) a bit on the (too) heavy side, but her singing is undeniably excellent and there is nothing wrong with her interpretation.
Juan Pons is an excellent Hérode, but I would have liked Phanuel (Kenneth Cox) to be a bit more idiomatic. Something that also applies to the Salomé of Renée Fleming: she sings beautifully but in this role she can not totally convince me.
NANCY GUSTAFSON 1995 (RCA 74321 79597 2)
The performance in Vienna was highly praised, and that this praise was justified is proved by the recording made live in the house by ORF.
First of all, there is Agnes Baltsa’s brilliant title role: fierce and dramatic. If you ask me: apart from Rita Gorr probably the best Hérodiade ever.
Placido Domingo sings ‘Ne pouvant réprimer les élans’:
Domingo, in the role of Jean, is even more impressive here than on Sony and also Juan Pons (Hérode) actually convinces me yet more on this recording. His rendition of ‘Vision Fugitive’ is very, very moving. Unfortunately, Nancy Gustafson (Salomé) must acknowledge the superiority of Fleming (Sony), but both pale in comparison to Cheryl Studer (Warner). Not to mention Regine Crespin!
Judging by the photos in the text booklet and the sparse clips on YouTube, we should be glad that the recording appeared on CD and not on DVD.
Finale of the opera:
In any case, the sound is excellent and the Vienna Opera orchestra under the direction of Marcello Viotti plays with great passion.
CHERYL STUDER 1995 (Warner 55983525)
Orchestrally, this recording is really top-notch. Michel Plasson conducts the orchestra from Toulouse very energetically, with a lot of verve and drive, and he also knows how to allow space for all the subtleties. Exciting and beautiful. That is how I like to hear opera.
José van Dam is an impressive Phanuel and Nadine Denize an excellent Hérodiade., although her intonation is not always pure.
Hérode is not really a role for Thomas Hampson, but he sings it very beautifully. Something that unfortunately cannot be said of Ben Heppner’s Jean. A heroic tenor in that role is nothing but a terrible mistake.
Cheryl Studer, on the other hand, is a Salomé of everyone’s dreams: girlish, innocent and naive. Her voice shines and sways and her final words “Ah! Darned Queen, if it is true that your cursed loins have given birth to me, look! Take back your blood and my life!” leave you shuddering and desperately weeping. Brava.