Programming Note: My contribution to OTF for March will be limited to today’s post. This is due to the way the calendar aligns itself this year, with Good Friday falling on the first week of April, when I have a special blog and podcast scheduled. My intention is to program that podcast as a “tandem” post – as I do here every month – and will probably issue three OTF’s in April. More to follow…

As I discussed a couple of years ago, there are surprisingly few operas that find their basis from Biblical sources, and it is interesting that a single biblical episode serves as the inspiration for two operas. The episode in question is the death of John the Baptist, as documented in a short story by French author Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert’s novella, titled Herodias, takes some literary licence in expanding upon the biblical account by introducing the notoruois Salome and her lust for John the Baptist into the mix. The Flaubert novella later inspires Oscar Wilde (and Richard Strauss) resulting in the notoriously scandalous play (and opera) Salome.

The context and the biblical account, however, portray the true villain in the episode as Herodias (in French, Hérodiade). The Hebrew King of Galilee, Herod Antipas, surfaces at least twice in the Gsopel – the John the Baptist episode and during the Passion of the Christ. It is documented in the Hebrew histories that, early in his reign, Antipas had married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. However, on a visit to Rome he stayed with his half-brother Herod Philip I and there fell in love with Philip's wife, Herodias, (granddaughter of Herod the Great and Mariamne I), and the two agreed to marry each other, after Herod Antipas had divorced his wife.

(The Histories tell us that Herod’s divorce from his first wife created a rift with his In-Laws, which ultimately led to war, and his later exile.)

Antipas and Herodias eventually marry – depending on who you believe - either before or after his half-brother’s death. This union was denounced by many, the most vocal of which being John the Baptist who had embarked in a ministry of preaching and baptism by the Jordan River. The New Testament Gospels state that John attacked the King's marriage as contrary to Jewish law (by marrying his brother’s wife, and embarking into an incestuous relationship, as Herodias was also Antipas' niece), while the Hebrew historian Josephus says that John's public influence made Antipas fearful of rebellion. According to Matthew and Mark, John was imprisoned but Herod was reluctant to order John's death. He was compelled to do so by Herodias' daughter (unnamed in the text but identified traditionally as Salome), to whom he had promised any reward she chose as a result of her dancing for guests at his birthday banquet.

Like I said earlier, this episode gives us two operas, the best known being Strauss’. The second opera is Jules Massenet’s Hérodiade, who clearly chooses to paint Herodias as the main antagonist, giving Salome a very different character in the work. There are similarities between the operas (how could there not be…). Herod's lust for Salome takes center stage, and while Massenet portrays Salome's longings for John the Baptist as more spiritual than sensual. In this version of the tale, Salome is ignorant of her royal parentage, and becomes a disciple of the Baptist, who is then executed by the lustful and jealous Herod.

Massenet completed Hérodiade in 1881 and was hoping for a premiere in Paris, but the director of the Paris Opera found the story "incendiary." So the opera's first production took place in Brussels later that same year and it was an immediate sensation, running for more than 50 performances. Just two months later, it was heard at La Scala in Milan, and by the early 1890s, the opera had made it all the way to New Orleans. Yet, in spite of the great success, Hérodiade plays second, third or even fourth fiddle among Massenet's operas (after works such as Manon, Werther and Cendrillon) and that may be thanks to Richard Strauss; compared to Salome, Massenet's opera can seem almost tame.

Which story “works best” is really up to the listener…

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)Hérodiade (1881)
Opéra in four acts, French libretto by Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont after the novella by Gustave Flaubert

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As I have done before, this performance is edited from one of Sean Bianco’s fine At The Opera podcasts, and I have included his spoken introductions.