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Posts Tagged ‘R. Strauss’s Daphne’

R. Strauss’s “bucolic tragedy” Daphne, written during the Second World War, has seldom been staged and, although some might blame the static libretto with its complex transformation scene at the end, I would rather mention the extremely difficult vocal parts and virtuosic writing for the orchestra. In any case, it is still a challenging story for a stage director and Torsten Fischer must be praised for his imaginative approach to the story that adds unusual depth to the plot without making violence to it.

Although the connection with the young anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl seems at first far-fetched, it ultimately pays off in the portrayal of a Daphne who refuses to blend in a world that has lost its innocence. The staging actually opens with the projection a touching quotation from one of her letters in which she praises the beauty of nature in comparison with the ugliness brought about by the work of mankind. The Dyonisian rites are here performed as pro-régime rallies with the deceptive appearance of Apollo as some sort of commanding officer that first promises the glory that Daphne dreams about and ultimately brings destruction by the killing of Leukippos. The closing scene alone is worth the price of the tickets – from her prison cell, Daphne dreams of walking out from it, climbs a long staircase and, by virtue of a long mirror hanging over the stage, we can see her joining her dead friend and all other members of the cast and chorus in a gigantic “human tree” of victims of the war. Has the director imposed his own view on the plot? If we have in mind the days when the opera was written, the idea behind the myth and the fact alone that this concept allows for a far more moving closing to the opera than awkward attempts of the title role’s transformation into a tree (you just have to write the words “Daphne” and “Strauss” on youtube.com to see my point), Torsten Fischer’s production goes far beyond the usual superficiality and narcissism of régietheater and offers far more than a traditional staging could propose. And it does not hurt either that costumes, sets and lighting are beautiful and well-judged.

Although Camilla Nylund’s soprano is a bit unfocused, she sang the impossibly strenuous title-role with poise and sensitiveness. Her warm tonal quality and clean phrasing are aptly Straussian and it is only a pity that exposed dramatic notes lack a brighter edge to shine in the auditorium. Her restrained and dignified acting are also praiseworthy. Ladislav Elgr’s firm and bright tenor proved to be up to the challenge of singing the role of Leukippos and could be said to steal the show, especially because Robert Dean Smith clearly was not in a good day. The role of Apollo is extremely testing and he seems to have an unending supply of high notes in his favor, but the voice lacked color and failed to pierce through. He is not dashing as the role ideally requires either. Christa Mayer seemed at ease with the contralto tessitura of Gaea and sang richly throughout, while Georg Zeppenfeld gave an ideal performance of the role of Peneios. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber took some time to warm – the first scenes lacked clarity and he did not seem to find an ideally transparent orchestral sound while trying to make singers’ lives easier. Fortunately, the tragic half of the story counted with dense sonorities of the Staatskapelle’s legendary strings in ideal balance with singers on stage and with the remaining sections of the orchestra.

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Daphne has always been, in my opinion, the hidden jewel among the unknown late Strauss operas and I guess that Renée Fleming has applied to a membership to the selected club of Straussian sopranos by championing it. Leonie Rysanek has done so with Frau ohne Schatten, Lisa della Casa with Arabella, Gundula Janowitz with Ariadne, Kiri Te Kanawa with Capriccio and Lucia Popp with basically all of it. As it is, this example of artistic generosity is most welcome and concert performances following the studio recordings with such a mediated diva will certainly help to place Daphne in the repertoire. As it is, although the part requires a more spacious soprano, such as Maria Reining’s, the truth is that the most famous exponents of the part, at least in recordings, tend to be lyric soprano tout court. In that sense, Fleming has the advantage of an absolutely creamy rounded tone, comfortable with the fast articulation for declamatory passages and readily taking to legato in the high-lying melodic moments. It is praiseworthy that she has really decided to delve into Straussian style and eschew the jazzy mannerisms displayed in her Arabellas and Marschallins. Here she is ready to take a pure line while still keeping some spirit. Compared to the recording, though, the voice tends to lose some colour in the more dramatic passages. The middle register does not come across as clearly as it should either, compromising some of the understanding of the text. That said, her performance is generally lovely and charming. If one has Hilde Güden in mind, a certain bright quality allowing for a more positive delivery of the text may be missed. Now if one has Lucia Popp in mind, one will miss an interpretation more verbally intense and a wider resource to tone-colouring, not to mention the important girlish impression in this role about chastity and innocence. All in all, this is an important step in Fleming’s career, in the sense that she is on her way to find the right balance between stylishness and expression in a repertoire close to her vocal nature.

As Apollo, Johann Botha is probably one of the most easily produced tenors visiting the part. As much as in the recordings, his top notes do not blossom as one might expect, but he knows how to keep legato and tries to play with dynamics. Those who know Böhm’s recording will be forever spoiled by the sheer charisma of James King, not to mention the vocal lushness of Fritz Wunderlich. That said, Roberto Saccà offered his best performance so far. Here, his focused tone and fearless approach to the role were all for the best. A thoroughly beautiful performance. As much as the excellent Michael Schade in the studio recording, he is no Wunderlich, but who else is? Robert Holl has not the dark sound required by the role, but was able to pull out a plausible performance out of his soft-grained yet forceful bass. The other roles were splendidly cast. The statuesque Anna Larsson’s deep contralto is impressive in itself, Julia Kleiter’s First Maid is the evidence that there is no small role, only small singers. I am eager to listen to her Mozart. There is no need to say Eike Wilm Schulte as First Shepherd is an example of embarras de richesse.

Nevertheless, the reason why this was above all a beautiful performance is Semyon Bychkov’s exemplary conducting of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. His vision is grander in manner than both Böhm and Haitink, but still keeping the necessary clarity enveloped in exquisite orchestral sound, positively indulgent in sensuous slow tempi in the most romantic passages.

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