Rosemary Yeoland: Richard Strauss and his French Salomé

In the accompanying video, June Anderson, the American coloratura soprano, sings the finale of the French version of Richard Strauss’s Salomé in the performance by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège in June 2011. A general criticism of the opera was made by the review on 2 July 2011: “On ne comprend guère la plupart des protagonists, surtout quand ils sont en fond de scène”. (One can hardly understand most of the protagonists, particularly when they are at the back of the stage). Whereas the acoustics of the theatre may have been partly to blame, the comment may also have applied to the use of the French language, where speech subtleties and unaccented words are not as easily projected as their German or Italian counterparts.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the French version of Strauss’s Salomé; an earlier much-acclaimed version was performed and recorded by the Opéra de Lyon, conducted by Kent Nagano in 1990. Strauss’s original German version, written in 1905 and based on the translation by Hedwig Lachmann, remains however the more popular, as it seems to be more in accord with the composer’s Germanic nature and the rhythms and accents of the music fall more naturally into place with the libretto throughout the opera. This would also make the libretto less difficult from the singers’ point of view.

The question may therefore be asked: why did Strauss attempt a French version?

The fact that Oscar Wilde himself had chosen French as the language of his play appealed to the composer. It added to the exoticism of the atmosphere of the plot. Strauss, himself a Francophile, spoke French and frequented Paris and its musical milieu regularly. Familiar with the Parisian operatic circuit, an added attraction for the composer was the thought that a French version of his opera would be suitable for a performance at the Opéra Comique. He would later point this out in correspondence to Romain Rolland.[i]

How did the French musicologist and author Romain Rolland come to be involved? At first, Strauss, by himself, had attempted to adapt his music from his German version of Salomé to match the French dialogue he had selected directly from Wilde’s play; he quickly realised that the French language did not easily fit the rhythms that suited the German words. His friendship with Romain Rolland had begun in 1899 following an article that Rolland had written about the composer, and Rolland was a regular companion during Strauss’s Parisian visits. Having realised the difficulty of matching Wilde’s words to his music, Strauss sought Rolland’s aid to ensure that he “hadn’t done violence to the French language.”[ii] Rolland took on the task with diligence, realising that Strauss’s understanding of the nuances of the French language was limited. He thus directed the composer to study Claude Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, in order to appreciate how beautifully Debussy set “speaking” French to music. Yet even after examining the score, Strauss still remained uncomfortable with the way the French words chosen by Debussy had been stressed or left unstressed. His frustration is evident in ensuing letters to Romain Rolland, who likewise took umbrage at one stage with the remark: “You Germans are really astonishing; you don’t understand anything about our poetry, not a thing; and you pass judgement on it with imperturbable complacency”[iii].

Rolland was also critical of Oscar Wilde’s French style, considering it to be “Montmartre French” and not of good literary standard. He felt that many of Wilde’s repeated phrases such as “il va arriver un malheur” (something bad is going to happen) bordered on vaudeville status and should be eliminated from the libretto, as he feared a French audience would laugh at the repeated remarks.[iv] Strauss refused to do this. To him, such repetition made musical sense, providing leitmotif material throughout the score, a musical effect made popular in Germany by Richard Wagner.  Strauss also indicated to Rolland that he wished to remain true to Wilde’s phrases. Thus, whilst responding to some of the simpler grammatical corrections that Romain Rolland had suggested in his two hundred painstaking corrections, he left many of Wilde’s Anglicisms in his libretto.

The composer on the whole was more responsive to Rolland’s comments on word stress than he was to Wilde’s choice of language. Rolland had commented: “Our language has no connection with yours. You have marked stresses, very strong and continual contrasts between […] the strong and weak syllable […] [our poetry] has an infinite number of shades in the half-tone – accents much less stressed than yours are, but more varied, more supple, more flexible” and so the composer made several alterations to the time values of the musical notes in his opera to coincide with Rolland’s suggestions.[v]

Once completed, the French version of Richard Strauss’s Salomé was not in fact staged at the Opéra Comique, possibly because of arguments concerning Strauss’s performance rights in other countries. Instead, the first performance was given at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels on 25 March 1907, where seventeen performances followed over two months, indicating that the opera was received favorably. Parisian audiences were to hear only a scaled-down rendition at the Petit-Théâtre with conductor Water Staram providing piano accompaniment on 29 April 1907. This appears to have been a special event to prepare the French élite for the first performance of the German version of the opera held on 8 May 1907 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Had Strauss lost faith in his French version?

Whatever the answer, the German version took hold and became more popular, and its persistent success is evident in recent figures taken from the 2003-2011 French/Belgian operatic season. Of the six performances staged over this time only the one featuring June Anderson is in French.

[i] Letters to Romain Rolland, 16 July 1905, 13 September 1905 in Richard Strauss and Romain Rolland (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), p.41, p.53.

[ii] Letter to Romain Rolland, 5 July 1905, op.cit, p.29.

[iii] Letter to Richard Strauss, Sunday 16 July 1905, op.cit. p.36.

[iv] Ibid

[v] Letter to Richard Strauss, 16 July op.cit. p.37.


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