Music by Jules Massenet. Libretto by Paul Millet and Henri GrÈmont, based
on Gustave Flaubert’s novelette (1877).
|19 December 1881, Theatre de la
|Revised version: 1 February 1884, ThÈ‚tre Italien, Paris
|Jean (John the Baptist)
|Phanuel, Chaldean astrologer
|Vitellius, Roman Proconsul
Setting: Jerusalem, c. 30 C.E.
Scene— The Courtyard of the Palace of Herod
It is dawn and a great horde of merchants, traders and slaves crowd the
scene to do their oriental bartering. The Pharisees and Sadducees among them
soon begin to argue, then to fight. Phanuel, seer and chief adviser to Herod,
attracted by the uproar, enters and bids them cease; the crowd disperses.
Phanuel remains musing over the impossibility of a strong Israel with her
people thus divided, when he is interrupted by the entry of Salome. She is
seeking John, the prophet with a new and rising gospel. She tells Phanuel how
when she was a child, John had saved her from the desert; this she narrates
in a lovely aria.
While listening to her sympathetically he marvels that this seemingly
innocent child does not know who her mother really is. As she leaves, Herod
enters, seeking her. He has seen her seldom, yet his passions are inflamed by
this new beauty who lives so obscurely in his palace. He is startled from his
amorous meditation by the arrival of Herodias, who comes crying out for
vengeance; she demands the head of John, who has insulted her by calling her
Jezebel. Herod refuses, much to the chagrin of Herodias, his one-time
favorite. Her scoldings are in turn interrupted by the entry of John, who
denounces the pair in such terrifying language that they flee.
Salome now comes towards the prophet, and frankly confesses her great love
for him. He listens understandingly and kindly, but bids her turn to God and
dream only of the love that is fulfilled in heaven. But Salome is not able to
comprehend why she should not love and be loved on earth as well as in
Scene 1—Herod’s Chamber
Herod, restless on his luxurious couch, watches the dance of the
almond-eyed women whose sole purpose in life is doing his pleasure. He cannot
endure their presence now, for his thoughts are of nothing but Salome; he
longs for her with the urgent desire that every powerful man has for the
unattainable. A serving woman brings him a mysterious potion that will enable
him to see a vision of the woman he most loves. Herod hesitates a moment, for
fear that it may be a trick to poison him, but desire is too strong. He
drinks the potion, and beholds a maddeningly tantalizing vision of Salome.
The vision passed, he again attempts to sleep; his restless tossings are
ended by Phanuel, who comes to warn him that his hold upon the populace is
insecure. Even as he speaks, from without there is a great cry for Herod.
Scene 2—A Public Square in Jerusalem
Local patriots have come to swear their allegiance to Herod in attempting
to throw off the yoke of Rome. They are laughed at by Herodias. Soon trumpets
announce the approach of Vitelius, and Herod is among the very first to bow
the knee to the Roman; only John boldly remains standing before the rulers.
Vitelius wonders at this man; Herod, although conscience of what is going on
about him, is still under the spell of Salome’s beauty. He sees
nothing—his eyes are glued on Herodias’ daughter as she affectionately
watches the prophet, John. Herodias observes everything, and warns Vitelius
of John’s growing power. The prophet denounces the Romans, saying their
glory is but for a day; then, surrounded by his followers, he disappears.
Scene 1—Phanuel’s House
Phanuel, alone, is gazing out over the city, silent under the starry sky.
He wonders about this man John, is he merely man, or a god? Herodias comes
seeking her horoscope; the astrologer finds only blood written there. A star,
inextricably linked to hers, serves to remind Herodias of her long-forgotten
daughter; she wishes to see her again. Phanuel points from his window down to
the gates of the temple. It is Salome they see. Herodias is horrified; hatred
and desire for vengeance return. “My Daughter,” she cries, “never . . .
Scene 2—Inner Court of the Temple
Salome laments and then falls fainting at the gate of the temple prison
where John is confined. Herod, planning how he might release John and use him
in his plot against the Romans, forgets all his political ideas when he finds
Salome here. She recoils in horror when she realizes that this is the
all-powerful Herod making love to her. Priests and people enter and worship
at the Holy of Holies; then John is brought out for trial. The priests demand
his execution; the crowd is divided. Herod would save John if he will help
him in his plot against the Romans. John refuses; the Priests clamor for his
execution. Suddenly Salome throws herself at John’s feet, and, before the
astonished multitude, begs that she may die with him. Herod has found his
rival, and condemns the two to death.
Scene 1—A Dungeon in the Temple
John prays for strength in the ordeal to come, and pleads that he may be
freed of the love of Salome which constantly disturbs his soul. When she
enters a moment later he believes that this is an indication that heaven
approves their love. They clasp one another in a supreme embrace while they
sing their duet, “Il est beau de mourir en s’aimant.” Priests enter to
lead John to death; but Salome is dragged away to Herod’s Palace.
Scene 2— The Great Hall in the Palace
A most luxurious festival in honor of the Roman Empire is in progress. As
a part of the festivities a group of Phoenician women perform a languorous
oriental dance. Salome runs distractedly before Herod and Herodias again to
plead that she may be permitted to die with John. She appeals to the Queen,
saying, “If ever thou wert a mother, pity me!” Herodias trembles at the
word. Suddenly there appears at the back of the hall an executioner with
dripping sword, crying “The Prophet is dead!” From the expression on the
face of Herodias, Salome recognizes her as the one responsible for this; she
rushes at the woman with drawn dagger. “Spare me!” cries the frightened
Herodias, “I am thy mother!” Salome recoiling in horror answers, “If
thou be my mother, take back thy blood with my life,” then drives the
dagger into her own breast.
[Synopsis Source: The Victor Book of the Opera (10th
image_description=Gustave Moreau: SalomÈ (1876)
first_audio_name=Jules Massenet: HÈrodiade
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product_title=Jules Massenet: HÈrodiade
John: Kostadin Andreev
Herod: Georg Tichy
Salome: Nancy Gustafson
Phanuel: Wojtek Smilek
Vitellius: Istvan Gati
High Priest: David Cale Johnson
Orchester und Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Reynald Giovaninetti (cond.)
Live performance, 6 March 2000, Vienna