It seems almost inevitable that sensuality would play a vital role in an art form like opera. A synthesis of emotionally charged music, labyrinthine plots, and divinely grandiose sets make for an unrivalled dramatic experience, full of sensory stimuli so that, when combined the almost universally romantic nature of operatic drama, sensuality is a common occurrence. Fleeting moments of sexual tension or drawn out duets of passion have gradually become as common in opera as the word ‘amore’ is in their libretti.
Any opera buff, upon hearing the word ‘sensuality’, will almost instantly think of Salome, Strauss’s one act opera based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, which culminates in a necrophiliac scene wherein the titular role kisses the decapitated head of John the Baptist. Still controversial for some audiences even now, the sensually-infused nature of such a scene was clearly intended to provoke and is musically just as ground-breaking as the narrative is morally-questionable. Culminating in a cadence that includes what has been described as “the most sickening chord in all opera”, the entire scene is underlined with a haunting trill, sustained by various instruments creating an eeriness now more commonly identified with horror soundtracks than the opera hall. The persistent interruptions of oboes pervade the bars in which Salome’s voice is absent, before sinisterly assimilating with her in a declining scale, launching the voice and orchestra into a perverse melodic tangent. C sharp major comes into play, but Salome has no reason for such musical optimism, clearly misinterpreting the dire situation she is in, as the orchestra tangle her back into the minor shortly after. As if the audience needed anymore reminding, an orchestral rumble, an earthquake or perhaps the gates of hell opening, begins moments before each of Salome’s more recitative-style phrases, adding to the foreboding of the scene.
Fraught with leitmotif, the music of this closing scene is difficult to fully appreciate without reference to the wider opera, but the way in which Strauss crafts such horrific sinistry, all revolving around one moment of sensuality is striking. The switches between minor and major emblemise the contorted reactions forced upon the audience: here is a woman, so engrossed in her sensual desires that, no matter how perverse they may be, she is in some way deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The discordance in the orchestra is not only a symbol of the ominous fate of Salome, but of the moral complexity the audience feels upon experiencing such sensuality. The musical presence of the sensuality is just as jarring as its physical representation, and it is clear that, both in the score and on the stage, sensuality has a shock factor like little else; the entire opera leads to this one kiss, a transient, sensual moment, that nonetheless defines and reshapes the hour and a half that precedes it.
Salome’s kiss is undoubtedly an extreme example, a sensual climax of an obscene kind, but musically important nonetheless, and a moment that illuminates its preceding pages of music. But sensuality in opera is not merely constricted to the grand and climactic. On the other end of the scale, an equally (if not more) famous scene (for very different reasons), situated at the start of an opera, revolves around the innocent touch of a hand, musically and narratively moulding the remaining two and a half hours to come.
Only a few decades before Strauss, Puccini’s ‘Che gelida manina’ was composed as the first solo aria for Rodolfo, the tenor, in La Bohème. The high C has since been enshrined as a litmus test for any tenor worth their salt and the aria is one of opera’s most famous. Typically Puccini in its lyricism, there is a great deal of realismo composition going on too that accentuates the brief moment of sensuality; these sweet layers return through the rest of the opera to remind character and audience of a naïve, rose-tinted, fleetingly sensual touch of the hand that lit a spark between the two lovers.
The opening phrases, fairly short with minimal accompaniment and conversational libretto, imply a hesitant relationship, a man rendered nervous by touching the cold hand of a woman he loves. As the aria progresses, fairly slowly, gradually building, so too does the orchestra grow in richness, with strings more consistent in their accompaniment and doubling of the tenor voice, vocal tessitura rising, and more classically metaphorical lyrics about love coming out of the locker in an attempt to woo Mimi. Vocal silence is no longer hesitant, but an opportunity for orchestral flourishing, building up the internal courage before the hopeful climax in that high C is unleashed by the voice. A sudden retraction of opera-ness then returns, with the song back on a conversational tone, but only now, post tenor mating-call, the conversation is far more intimate and familiar: the high C worked. Though on first glance there doesn’t seem to be much depth to this aria, it is the ensuing music that grants it its development: Mimi’s following aria, structurally very similar, seamlessly blends into a duet between the two lovers with similar thematic progression in both, stemming from Rodolfo’s nervous attempts at love. Themes from these three arias recur throughout the ensuing opera in various forms, reminding the audience of the sensual bond between the two, subtly nodding to their origins, even at times when things look to be a little bleak between them. Indeed, before Mimi’s death, a gently minor variation of phrases from their first encounter whispers on the strings, as if she is drifting off into the past, towards that sensual moment when they met, full of optimism and hope.
Sensuality, perhaps inextricable from opera, can take form on either end of the spectrum: from orchestrally complex and scandalous to an almost child-like modesty in action and musicality, and everywhere in between, the sensual forms an innate compositional and emotional tool. Hardly surprising from such an impassioned art form.