Die Lieber der Danae is probably the most notable rarity among the R. Strauss’s later operas. Although Hofmannsthal original ideas were already quite convoluted, Joseph Gregor’s nonsensical libretto has a great deal of share in the work’s unpopularity. The composer himself often complained that he couldn’t find inspiration in Gregor’s verses. And Strauss did not make it easier by composing a difficult score for a large orchestra with impossible leading roles (tenor and soprano are required to sing heroic high c#’s). As a result, it has been almost never performed – and the only existing recordings have been made live, often with unglamourous casts. But the music is far more interesting than one could expect – after an unfocused act I, act II features a beautiful long scene for tenor and soprano and the last act closes in the grand manner. I would have no problem on choosing it over Die Ägyptische Helena or Friedenstag.
The fact that the libretto is flawed to say the least requires from the stage director a great deal of imagination – and R. Strauss himself acknowledges Rudolf Hartmann’s contribution in this department as a key element in the Salzburg première. The Deutsche Oper Intendentin, Kirsten Harms, however, preferred to press the “easy solution”-key in permanence in this new (?) production. I wonder which is the purpose of doing something so outdated in its 1980’s gloss and superficiality when one has nothing to say. I would gladly have a highly aestheticized stylization instead anytime. As it is, as in Harms’s Frau ohne Schatten, Elektra etc etc, the action is set in some sort of elevator or staircase hall that crumbles down to act III. An upside-down piano hanging from the ceiling is supposed to be the unifying symbolism of it all. To make things worse, it does not look well. Considering the prima donna’s personal beauty and the fact that she should wear, according to the libretto, some stunning costumes, one has to use one’s imagination to see that.
As a compensation, conductor Andrew Litton is entirely at home in this repertoire. He did not spare effect, grandiosity, impact and forward movement. The immediate result is that the opera did not sound long or boring, even when R. Strauss’s creative power left something to be desired. The negative aspect of the 100%-approach is that his cast had to work hard for their money. None of these singers have the large, dramatic voices necessary to preside over the dense orchestral sound: in spite of their best efforts, they often sounded distant and effortful. And the house orchestra played heartily (even with this orchestra’s Straussian credentials, this evening’s performance sounded particularly successful) – the chorus understandably still needs some time to adjust to the rhythmically complex writing.
In the title role, Manuela Uhl (whose recording for CPO is probably the only uncut version available for sale) brings her silvery, full-toned soprano, clear diction and stylishness to the difficult part. Her voice, unfortunately, has seen better days and she took almost two acts to warm. The ascents above the stave were unfocused and/or brittle and limited in volume – and the score requires a lot from the soprano’s high register. In her long scene with Xanthe, the extremely well-cast Hulkar Sabirova often sounded richer and more hearable in comparison. In any case, Uhl would eventually gather her resources for a sensitively sung act III with some thrilling high mezza voce. If I may make her a suggestion, I guess she should follow Julia Varady’s advice and give the jugendlich dramatisch repertoire a pause, sing two or three Nozze di Figaro Countesses, settle a couple of things and only then return to the Straussian roles that used to show her so advantageously. Matthias Klink’s tenor is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of Midas, but – except for one glitch by the end of act II – held his own bravely. His tightly focused tenor pierces through without difficulties, but having to sing constantly at full-powers robs him of operating area for nuance. Mark Delavan is a puzzling Heldenbariton – the voice certainly has the color for this Wotan-like role, but he too sounded small-scaled and lacking volume. And he still lacks presence for those god-in-chief roles. Thomas Blondelle offered an all-round satisfying performance as Merkur, singing with imagination with his bright and firm tenor and proving to be entirely at ease with the acting requirements of this comic role. The four queens were also cast from strength from the Deutsche Oper ensemble with Hila Fahima, Martina Welschenbach, Julia Benziner and Katarina Bradic.