Sunday, October 12, 2008

Music, Morality, and Horror: Salome Slays Sweeney Todd

(reflections on seeing an High Definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Richard Strauss's SALOME in a movie theatre at the same time that I'm learning the piano parts for Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD for a production by teens at The Walker School.)

The moral horror that we feel when we see SALOME is different from the visceral horror of SWEENEY TODD.

The stage violence of SWEENEY is intended to startle us, and to evoke laughter, and even to be cathartic -- as we enjoy seeing the despicable judge come face to face with the man he wronged. The corny diminished chords that open and close Sondheim's score, heard first on a reedy organ and last in orchestral accompaniment under Sweeney's final lament, frame the action in a long, long tradition of melodramatic music for old movies and even older stage shows.

SWEENEY ends with a "moral" that also comments on our vicarious pleasure in seeing Sweeney's schemes finally succeed: "To seek revenge may lead to Hell, /but everyone does it, though seldom as well / As Sweeney...." Which adult has not felt the need to seek revenge, maybe outraged at some fellow drivers in heavy traffic? We at least recall revenge fantasies from adolescence. Of course, revenge is a "dark and hungry god" that doesn't stop when it devours its original object, as it does in SWEENEY, so we also get the self-satisfaction of feeling morally superior to Sweeney, and we accept the caution at the end in a spirit of fun.

As pianist, I'm enjoying more than ever the other kind of fun involved. Just as the plot criss-crosses the characters and incidents in an elaborate pattern of coincidences and inevitable surprises, the music is doing the same thing. Hearing the piano accompaniment alone, I'm discovering how underscoring for one character ties him to another. I'm learning how songs that I've loved for thirty years as distinct creations are actually variations of each other.

SALOME ends, like SWEENEY, with a bloody embrace and a sharp edge cutting off the life of the title character, but the experience is different. There is little in the way of vicarious pleasure, here. Quite the opposite: Every kind of sensual pleasure is presented during the hour - and - some minutes of the opera. On stage are "the beautiful people" in silky evening dress (Queen Herodias resembling Elizabeth Taylor in her prime), luscious music, drinking and eating, erotically explicit dancing. Instead of vicarious pleasure, these images evoke disgust. That's literal, too, as "dis + gust" means "loss of taste." These guests, especially the Princess Salome, are bored with their pleasures, and are hungrily looking for novelty. They find it, holding their drinks, and lounging around listening with mixed horror and fascination to the prophesies of doom emanating from the well on stage. The King himself is wearied: tired of the mother, he's pursuing the daughter. The most horrible part of the opera may be her attempt to seduce the ascetic Johannan. She sings, first, "I love your body," and she rhapsodizes on its whiteness like ivory. When he rejects her, she immediately reviles his body as "white like a corpse," then coos, "I love your hair." Ditto: he rejects her, and she fixes on another part of him, his mouth. Unable to shake his moral resolve, unable to comprehend a life guided by something other than appetite, and stung by rejection, she resolves to get what she desires by other means.

The rest follows inevitably from that encounter. There's the King's promise to give her anything if she'll "dance" for him, the spectacle of her dance with its thrilling music, and the ghastly fulfillment of her desire when she holds the prophet's head in her hands and sings, "I want to bite your lips as I would bite into ripe fruit." Even the king is sickened, and orders the guard to kill her in the opera's last seconds.

Strauss's music swells and churns with each whim of appetite, coming into focus with chorale - like accompaniment whenever Johannan sings.

Both shows confront us with our worst secret impulses; SALOME, digging deeper, is the more horrifying.

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