It’s been decades since Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé was last presented as a ballet, even as it has been performed in the concert hall quite regularly.
This video clip, courtesy of the Mariinsky Ballet Channel on YouTube, highlights some of the new choreography that has been developed by Emil Faski, danced in rehearsal by Mariinsky company members Victoria Brilyova and Andrei Yermakov.
To my knowledge, the last time The Tragedy of Salome was mounted as a ballet production was in 1954 by the Paris Opéra. That was the sixth time Parisians had had the opportunity to see the ballet, with earlier productions mounted in 1944, 1928, 1919, 1913, 1912 and 1907.
The first production in 1907 was of Schmitt’s original version of the music, danced by Loïe Fuller who, like Isadora Duncan, was famous for her scarves and lighting effects. Schmitt had composed the nearly one-hour score in under three months, drawing quick inspiration from a dramatic scenario conjured up by poet and theater director Robert d’Humières.
The 1907 Salomé was mounted as a “mimed drama” at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris, a smallish performance space that was unable to accommodate an orchestra of more than 20 musicians.
Despite this limitation, Schmitt managed to create a score that is highly effective, even as he must have chafed at the inability to employ his masterful orchestration skills.
Indeed, Schmitt was forced to confine himself to using merely a quintet of strings, a flute, an oboe/English horn, a clarinet, a bassoon, a trumpet, two horns and two trombones, along with harp and limited percussion.
“In spite of the small number of players, [Florent Schmitt] was able to draw from his orchestra astonishing effects … His orchestral commentary, tense and concentrated, quivers with inner life – vibrant in its passion. With an astonishing firmness of style and an incontestable rhythmic force, the composer has translated both the subtleties and brutalities inherent in the poetic text.”
You can sample how effective Schmitt’s scoring sounds in this excerpt from a 1991 Marco Polo recording made of the 1907 original version, with Patrick Davin conducting members of the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, courtesy of Jean-Christian Bonnet’s excellent music channel on YouTube.
The 1907 production of La Tragédie de Salomé turned out to be one of the principal artistic events of the Paris season, receiving more than 50 performances (conducted by the then-very-young Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht).
The critics were glowing in their praise of the choreography and the music. The comments of Henri Gauthier-Villars were representative, who spoke of a “sumptuous symphony that shimmers around” the principal dancer.
But understandably, Schmitt wanted to find a way to give his music fresh light – and added “oomph” – when he prepared another version of the score five years later. Schmitt’s new version expanded the orchestra to full symphonic forces even as it reduced the number of tableaux from six dances to three.
The composition that resulted, now closer to 30 minutes in length, has been the one used to revive the ballet in subsequent years.
La Tragédie de Salomé was included in a memorable evening of ballet on April 22, 1912, sharing billing with La Péri by Paul Dukas, Istar by Vincent d’Indy and Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs (better known to music-lovers as Valses Nobles et Sentimentales) by Maurice Ravel.
This production of Salomé featured Natasha (Natalia) Trouhanova in the starring role. Maxime Dethomas was the set designer, while the composer himself directed the Lamoureux Orchestra. (Each of the other three ballets was conducted by their respective composers as well.) The gala program was repeated on April 23, 25 and 27.
Hard on the heels of the 1912 presentation of Salomé was a Ballet Russes production mounted the following year, with choreography by Boris Georgevich Romanof and the prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina cast in the starring role.
That production was the topic of a feature spread in Comœdia Illustré, the leading theatre magazine in Paris at the time, which also presented photos of a bejeweled Karsavina along with colorfully costumed Nubian guards, as well as the sumptuous set designs of Serge Sudeikine.
Considering the impressive roster of ballerina stars who took up the Salome role – along with the dramatic potential the score to Salomé offers – its disappearance from the ballet repertoire after 1954 seems somewhat odd.
So it is doubly welcome to see this new Mariinsky production unfold. And with the Salomé being taken on tour this year, perhaps it will lead to more widespread interest and revival of a work that deserves to be seen on the stage as much as it’s heard in the concert hall.
Update: The Mariinsky Ballet’s production of La Tragédie de Salomé premiered in Russia in 2013, followed by stagings outside the country.
It was taken to Italy in 2013 (to Trieste, where it was performed at the Teatro Verdi). In addition, a video has been uploaded recently on the Mariinsky’s YouTube channel featuring choreographer Emil Faski talking about his realization of the ballet, accompanied by a presentation of stage production excerpts.