08 May 2007

MASSENET: Hérodiade

Hérodiade, opera in four acts.

Music by Jules Massenet. Libretto by Paul Millet and Henri Grémont, based on Gustave Flaubert’s novelette (1877).

First Performance:19 December 1881, Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels
Revised version: 1 February 1884, Théâtre Italien, Paris
Principal Characters:
Salomé (Salome) Soprano
Hérodiade (Herodias) Mezzo-Soprano
Jean (John the Baptist) Tenor
Hérode (Herod) Baritone
Phanuel, Chaldean astrologer Bass
Vitellius, Roman Proconsul Baritone
High Priest Baritone

Setting: Jerusalem, c. 30 C.E.


Act I

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 heaven.

Act II

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 . . . my rival!”

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.

Act IV

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 ed., 1929)]

Click here for the complete libretto.