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Reviewed by:
  • Performing Salome, Revealing Stories ed. by Clair Rowden
  • Helen Julia Minors
Performing Salome, Revealing Stories. Edited by Clair Rowden. (Ashgate Interdisciplinary Studies in Opera.) Farnham, Surrey, Eng.: Ashgate, 2013. [xvi, 217 p. ISBN 9781409445678 (hardcover); ISBN 9781409445685, 9781409474227 (e-book), $109.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

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One could be pardoned for assuming that this book is a study of a single operatic work, Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s play. It is, however, much more than that. This book presents a series of essays dedicated to charting the history of the play’s operatic and balletic stage settings and its development as opera on film. This detailed historical, cultural, and analytical survey is presented by authors from various disciplines, both within and outside of the performing arts. The diversity in approach and perspective is the strength of this volume, edited by Clair Rowden. Contributing scholars come from musicology, comparative literature, film and audiovisual studies, gender studies, English literature, and performance studies. Each author crosses the disciplinary boundaries with ease, with reference to dance, stage design, political history, and institutional history. Interdisciplinary dialogue is used to assess the various approaches to the staged and filmed versions of Salome, which, despite its potential to shock and offend, has become a repertoire staple. Fundamentally, the book reveals as much about the cultural context of these settings as it does about the musical work.

Much previous scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” both for its structural placement and explicit content, but Rowden’s book draws out themes of representation and transformation across the entire work, and importantly, illustrates how the collaborative content in each reworking of this famous story has impact on its retelling. As she notes in the introduction: “the embodiment of Salome is the focus of this volume” (p. 1). The “public perception to that of [Wilde’s] private life” (p. 2) informs attitudes about the work’s reception, and also about the interpretation of Salome. Is Salome gazing at Herod through Wilde’s eyes? Is Salome a feminist figure (p. 11)? Wilde is presented as a “transitional figure” (p. 4) who utilizes the decadent style to develop a new approach to drama. Notably “Modernism’s discontent with bourgeois institutions, mores and morality, values and hopes” is explored to reveal that the performance of Salome is “a self-conscious performance,” which has been used as “a vehicle for the manipulation of the concepts of performance and representation” (p. 5). This original book is a “negotiation of multiple meanings, tensions and agency between its different interpretative layers” (p. 7).

Each version reveals something of its context through interpretation of the challenging content (with reference to biblical figures alongside lurid sexual acts and incestuous desire, which was perceived as inappropriate for nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European society). The main issues in the book all concern transformation in some form: notably, the ways in which Wilde’s play has been reinterpreted within opera (chapters 1, 2, 6, and 7), the adaptions that resulted in response to censorship (chapters 2 and 4), and the changing ontology of Salome as work and character over the last century (acknowledged in all chapters). The response of music to text (Richard Strauss), and of dance to music and text (Florent Schmitt), reveals instability in meaning and interpretation (see chapters 3 and 5). In view of gender performance, Salome might be seen as an erotic autonomous female, a stripper presented for the male gaze as so hotly discussed in late-nineteenth-century works, or the re-gendered image of Wilde himself, displaying lust and homoerotic tendencies. But there is also an allegory in the ways mediums interact, as music and dance are able to work with and to replace Wilde’s text, and in the modifications to the character (Salome as flirtatious innocent or temptress).

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the “Salome tradition” and illustrates what Polina Dimova refers to as a “synaesthetic principle”—namely the requirement that this play be presented using the “interweaving of vision, voice and dance” (p. 19). The changeability and temporality of the work are considered with enthusiasm and detail, looking forward...


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