Seven Veils and Umpteen Versions

Maria Tippett

  • Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle by Elaine Showalter
    Bloomsbury, 242 pp, £15.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0827 5
  • Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing by Elaine Showalter
    Oxford, 193 pp, £22.50, September 1991, ISBN 0 19 812383 3

I recently attended a lavish production of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome at the Staatsoper in Vienna. Directed by Boleslav Barlog, sung by the diva Mara Zampieri, and staged, in keeping with Beardsley’s erotic drawings, by Jürgen Rose, it was a feast for eye and ear. And yet as I crossed the road to the Cafè Sacher afterwards I wondered how successful the performance had really been. Was it Barlog’s intention to provide Herod with a richly-textured personality and leave his daughter with the one-dimensional cardboard cut-out character of the evil temptress? Salome’s efforts to fill her audience with revulsion knew no limits. During her last aria she lies spreadeagled before the severed head of John the Baptist which between deep breaths she kisses and caresses with great theatrical gusto. I’m not suggesting that the director should have turned Salome into a Pollyanna – as Hollywood did in the 1953 film which had Rita Hayworth dance in order to save the life of the saint. Yet the Vienna production left me wondering uneasily about alternative portrayals. Would I have been happier with Ken Russell’s 1987 film Salome’s Last Dance, which set the tale in a homosexual brothel; or Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s equally controversial production at the Metropolitan Opera in 1989, with its explicit reference to the Aids crisis? The Mark Morris Dance Company’s version, Striptease, taking its cue from Roland Barthes’s notion that unveiling re-veils rather than reveals, sets out to break down this strongly gendered act by having both male and female dancers strip in an awkward rather than erotic manner. And Lindsay Kemp’s version, first staged at the Roundhouse in 1977, has a transvestite perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Would any of these productions have spoken to me in a way that the Vienna Staatsoper performance did not?

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