Oscar Wilde's play Salome is one of my favorite plays, hands down. It is beautiful, lyrical and poetic without ever getting tiresome, because of the fantastic sense of dread from the very beginning of the piece. It has perfect fairy-tale logic--she praises three parts of his body, and he denies her three times. Harod offers her three treasures and she turns him down three times. &c. I like the play because it seems that Wilde really wrote something truly Beautiful, Beautiful more or less from the first image to the last... and that's hard to do. What's more, it's funny in parts.
The opera, I feel, is no better than the play, but certainly no worse. Many of the lines as spoken carry a delicious tension that is a little lessened when they are sung, the emotional "volume" should be lower in certain passages, I feel, but opera has a minimum volume that is a lot "louder" than spoken theatre. At any rate, nothing is straight theatre could possibly touch the last aria. It's great to see Salome talking to J the B's head in Wilde's version, but it is mind-blowing to see it happen with Strauss behind it. Those sort of emotional pyrotechnics are simply not possible in spoken theatre.
The set was a bare, cold wasteland with little rocks strewn about. In the center was the Well, and coming up from it was a funnel or scrim that went up to the grid. When Jochanan sang about Jesus from under the stage (and just how do you sing, unamplified, from under the frickin' stage so loud that I can hear you in the farthest section back? Damn.) when he sang this funnel-scrim was lit from within, which made it seem that a huge burst of light was shooting up from the well. It was awesome. The well had a little elevator, like you'd use in a mine, and the guards rode it down to see J. When they brought him up, it also acted as a cage, and he climbed around it--which was also great. I really love scenic designs that the actors can really interact with. Salome finished her seven-veiled dance in this cage as well, and she also climbed up the side-walls.
Surrounding the well was a circular wall, ten or fifteen feet high. In form, or outline, it looked like concrete--it was chipped, and uneven the way a concrete wall is chipped. It was made of some crazy translucent stuff, though, and the lighting designer used like a scrim. He could light it such that you could make out forms on the other side, or such that you could see shadow projected onto it, or he could make it solid and glowing. It was often super-cold, like a wall of ice, but he could make it warm and rich, too.
Above the wall, also circling the well, was a high balcony. This was often used very well, for people to look down on the folks onstage, &c. Sometimes, however, when there were a lot of people on stage I felt that the focus was a little muddy. I couldn't tell where I should be concentrating.
The singing was superb, and I must agree with my friend Libby (a certified, professional Opera Singer, so she should know) that Deborah Voight is a goddess of song. She has a final, fifteen or twenty-minute-long aria after she receives the decapitated head of Jochanan... well, I can't describe it, but I'll type about it anyway.
For those of you who don't know the play, she is telling the head that now she will finally kiss it, and that she will "bit it like ripe fruit". There are healthier girls in ancient Judea, for sure. She's dressed in red velvet, and the walls and the floor are all blood red. She's casting a beautiful shadow on the (curved) walls of the well-funnel, so throughout there is a beautiful, creepy, sometimes-perfect-and-sometimes-distorted shadow of her holding the head behind her.
As far as the emotional reaction provoked by the music... well, I have this Q.O.N.S.A. scale--when I first saw the Queen Of the Night's Second Aria, I felt that my entire being was channeled into the notes that she was singing, and that everything else in the world was completely unimportant. I rate that about a nine or so on this scale, and I'd imagine that getting shot in the head is about a ten. I don't think that any particular moment in Salome was a "9"--as thrilling as that Second Aria--but just about the whole fifteen minutes was a solid 8 or so. Fifteen minutes of total and complete, "find out later that you've been gripping your arm, hard" intensity... that was pretty phenomenal.
Here's a much-too-personal anecdote that I feel pretentious about revealing. Whenever I cry (for at least five years, now) I find that my mind becomes completely analytic. No matter how hard I'm bawling, my mind is carrying on its own detached discourse (usually about the interesting phenomenon at hand). Long story short, Salome made me cry, and there was no detachment whatsoever.