Raised in an environment lacking in moderation and inhibition, the eccentric Princess Salome is fascinated by the otherness of the ethical and ascetic Prophet Jochanaan, whom her mother Herodias and her lecherous stepfather Herod keep imprisoned. When Jochanaan brusquely rejects Salome’s lustful approaches, she becomes downright obsessed with him and uses her stepfather’s lustfulness to enforce her will: Since Herod promises to fulfil her every wish for the erotic »Dance of The Seven Veils«, she demands Jochanaan’s head on a silver platter. In a frenzied delusion, she kisses his lifeless lips, fulfilling her sensual desire – until Herod gives the order to kill Salome.
Richard Strauss had his first overwhelming success as an operatic composer with his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s scandalous and shocking Décadence drama in 1905: it moves between a delicate psychogram and the depiction of intoxicating, unbridled wantonness. In exhilaratingly ecstatic musical visions, Strauss pours the charged emotions and deep psychological traumas of his eccentric female lead into a shimmering, occasionally also brusque score. In doing so, he captures not only Salome’s mental decline and seductive powers with the sweeping sounds of the orchestra, but also her emotional coldness and Jochanaan’s impassioned accusations in a thrilling and disturbing way.
The prophet Jokanaan is hanging captive over the scene. The captain Narraboth is in love with Salome, the daughter of Queen Herodias and niece of King Herod. He serenades her beauty in the light of the moon. Herodias’ page tries to keep him away from Salome. Jokanaan utters prophecies that upset the soldiers; they don’t understand him.
Salome flees from King’s advances. She is fascinated by Jokanaan, who is now brought down to the ground. Salome wants to speak to him and demands that he be brought to her in violation of Herod’s commands. The soldiers refuse at first, but Narraboth is unable to resist Salome’s enticements and orders that Jokanaan be brought to her.
Oscar Wilde enters the scene and frees the prophet. Jokanaan steps forward and emphatically explains his worldview. He accuses Herod and Herodias of sin and evildoing. Salome, fascinated by the prophet, tries to approach him. Narraboth wants to keep Salome back. But Salome is overcome by a delirium of love for the body, hair, and mouth of Jokanaan, while the prophet tries to fend off her longing. The situation escalates. With Wilde present, a struggle of desire, resistance, attraction, the radical search for truth and ecstasy. Narraboth stabs himself to death. With his last ounce of strength, Jokanaan curses Salome and withdraws. Salome flees.
Herod and his wife Herodias burst in. Both are looking for Salome, who is sitting in silence. Herod fears his coming death. He tries to rally up his courage and makes advances to Salome to assure himself of his potency in the face of her youth. Herodias is disgusted, Salome refuses him coldly. The scene is repeatedly interrupted by Jokanaan’s prophecies, to which Herodias reacts violently.
A group of five Jews initiates a theological dispute over the concept of God and the possible appearance of the Messiah. Two Nazarenes describe the works of Jesus. Herod wants to know nothing of this and demands that Salome dance for him. Salome ultimately gives in, but in return Herod has to swear to fulfill her own demand, whatever it might be. Salome dances for Herod, accompanied by Wilde.
Herod is charmed and willing to fulfill Salome’s wish. Salome demands the head of Jokanaan. Herodias encourages her in making this wish. Caught in a fearful panic, Herod tries to convince Salome to withdraw her demand with offers of countless riches. Salome refuses to give in. Finally, Herod agrees. Jokanaan is brought away. Eagerly listening, Salome awaits his head. Jokanaan is killed.
Salome sings of her satisfied desire and her longing. Herod is horrified, while Herodias accepts the turn of events. Wilde withdraws. Salome kisses the severed head of Jokanaan. But this is also her demise: Herod now orders his soldiers to kill Salome. The soldiers murder Salome.