Andreas Schager, Regine Hangler, and Franz Welser-Most (Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger)
You'll want to know the backstory to Strauss' 1938 "bucolic tragedy" Daphne. Then you can decide for yourself if it's a tragedy or not. Apollo has insulted Cupid by mocking his skill as an archer. In revenge, Cupid has let loose two arrows. The sharp one, tipped in gold, has the power to create insatiable lust; this arrow has struck Apollo, god of the sun. The second arrow, tipped in lead, has the power to cause the rejection of all things romantic; this arrow has struck Daphne. God sees girl, god pursues girl, girl rejects him, he turns her into a tree. For a better synopsis, we refer you to Ovid's Metamorphosis.
The last time we saw this infrequently produced opera was in Santa Fe about 8 years ago. It was given an honorable production, directed by Mark Lamos. Last night, it was performed in concert version as part of the Lincoln Center Festival; this made perfect sense since staging this opera is challenging, at the very least. And this decision allowed us to focus on Strauss' incomparable music which missed no opportunity to depict the events.
We have never scorned programmatic music. We loved the bucolic and gentle opening theme and there was no question about the wildness of the Dionysian celebration. When Daphne sings of her love of nature, one can hear the rustling of the leaves, the song of birds, and the rushing of streams. The storm rivals Verdi's storm in Rigoletto. The final scene of the heroine's arboreal transformation was luminous.
The massive forces of The Cleveland Orchestra filled the stage of Avery Fisher Hall and Maestro Franz Welser-Möst, who has a special interest in opera, made sure that every nuance of Strauss' challenging score was manifest. Also onstage was the fine Concert Chorale of New York, singing the parts of the shepherds attending the Dionysian rites which open the opera. They are directed by James Bassi.
The notoriously difficult leading roles were handled successfully. Dramatic soprano Regine Hangler, making her New York debut, was fearless in her approach to Strauss' difficult high-lying tessitura. Her voice literally sailed over the huge sound of the orchestra without losing technical accuracy and emotional expressivity.
Heldentenor Andreas Schager made a mostly fine Apollo, ardent in his Wagnerian forcefulness, but straining at times of high volume plus high tessitura, It is indeed a punishing role. Apollo has heard Daphne's yearning for more sun in her life and makes a persuasive case in wooing her. Poor Daphne finally realizes that his offer includes romance and flees.
Likewise, she flees from her childhood friend Leukippos who comes across as a manipulative whiner and a poor loser. Tenor Norbert Ernst sang well but did not make his character as sympathetic as we would have wished. We did not feel much regret when Apollo dispatched him with an arrow.
Ain Anger employed his booming bass to good effect as Daphne's dad Peneios, a fisherman but also a river god. As mum, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby made a believable Gaia, a kind of mother earth goddess.
One of the highlights of the evening was a duet gorgeously sung by Lauren Snouffer and Anya Matanovic. Their part in the plot is to dress Leukippos up in the very feminine garment eschewed by Daphne, so he can "get close to her". (Another example of operatic cross-dressing). Of course, Apollo exposes the ruse in his own courtship.
Equally effective were four wonderful male soloists singing the parts of shepherds. Bass Ryan Speedo Green onstage in a small role like that can be considered "luxury casting". We further recognized the fine Matthew Plenk. And if we have never heard Christopher Feigum before, or Nikola Budimir, rest assured that we would love to hear them again.
So yes, the opera is bucolic. But is it a tragedy? The heroine realizes her dearest wish to live among nature free from importuning men. Her leaves will be used to honor heroes forevermore. We would like to crown the artists with laurel leaves right this very minute.
(c) meche kroop