Richard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2011
Andrew Litton, Kirsten Harms, Manuela Uhl, Mark Delavan, Matthias Klink, Thomas Blondelle, Burkhard Ulrich, Hulkor Sabirova
The penultimate opera by Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae was written in 1940 before his last opera Capriccio, but withheld until after the war for fear that the time wasn’t right for its rich, extravagant orchestration of a mythological tale that seemed to have little relevance to the times. The time it seems has never been right for Die Liebe der Danae, the opera only receiving its premiere in 1952 after Strauss’ death, and it would appear to have had even less relevance in the post-war years and in an world of German opera that was embracing the earthier, discordant sounds of Berg, Hindemith and Weill. Consequently, Die Liebe der Danae has rarely been performed (according to the notes on this release there have been only 16 productions worldwide in the last 60 years), but at a time when economic concerns have banking institutions and large countries teetering on the brink of crisis, perhaps the time is finally right for Strauss’ neglected late masterwork. This 2011 production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin certainly makes a persuasive case for it.
The classical subject of the opera relates to another of Jupiter’s mythological liaisons (Semele, Leda and one or two other conquests also appear in this opera), in his attempts to seduce Danae, the daughter of King Pollux of Eos. With the kingdom of Eos near bankruptcy through the extravagant lifestyle of the King, Jupiter knows that Danae’s weakness is gold, and since the king is keen to marry his daughter to a rich suitor in order to restore his fortunes, how could they resist an offer of marriage from Midas, the legendary King of Lydia, whose touch will turn anything into gold? Jupiter disguises himself therefore as Midas, and forces Midas himself to act as his messenger Chrysopher and make the necessary arrangements. Danae however, against the odds and her love of gold, rejects the disguised Jupiter and falls in love with the real Midas instead, unaware of who he really is. It’s a choice that is to have grave repercussions.
The libretto for Die Liebe der Danae was written by Joseph Gregor, who was never as successful in his collaborations with the composer as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but based on some original ideas by Hofmannsthal, there are more interesting themes within the storyline than are obvious on the surface, and inevitably some amount of operatic references and self-referentiality on the part of the composer. The mythological elements have some similarity to Die Walküre – the allure and the power of the Gods diminishing, the strength of human love that takes its place expressed in the union of Midas and Danae – and the score accordingly sees some of Strauss’ most Wagnerian touches, certainly in Act II at least. It’s tempting to see, as the author of the booklet notes on this release points out, Strauss in the role of Jupiter, considering his position at this stage in his life and concerned about his legacy in a world that may no longer need him.
There is however it seems to me something of Strauss in Midas also, “cursed” with a gift that turns everything to gold – Die Liebe der Danae is scored as beautifully, extravagantly, lushly and with infinite levels complexity as some of the greatest of Strauss’ works – but it’s a gift that carries with it the danger of turning whatever it touches into something cold and lifeless. Much of Strauss’ operatic work could certainly be considered as being too intellectualised and self-referential, as cool and lifeless as the golden rose in Der Rosenkavalier – an image that is even used again in this opera with the turning of a natural flower into a beautiful but lifeless gold object. But, considering the nature of opera again in his final work Capriccio, the composer seems to come to an accommodation that the underlying truth and life in his work will endure and still find a way to reach out and touch the human spirit. All that glitters may not always be gold, but sometimes it is.
It’s taken a long time for recognition to be given to this particular opera, which makes this release all the more welcome. The Deutsche Oper production of this beautiful but rarely performed work is an absolute delight and a real treat for fans of Richard Strauss. Directed by Kirsten Harms, there is perhaps some attempt to make a personal identification of the opera’s themes with the composer by hanging an upturned piano over the set in all three acts with falling pages of a music score instead of golden rain, but otherwise this is a relatively straightforward and faithful staging of the opera, set in a timeless mythological world that is neither period nor modern. It looks marvellous and comes across well on the screen, the sets perfectly appropriate for the scale and the nature of the subject. The casting is good and the singing excellent with Manuela Uhl as Danae, Mark Delavan as Jupiter and Matthias Klink as Midas. If there are a few minor areas where the strength of the singing is competing to be heard above the sumptuous, layered score, it’s nonetheless as good as you could hope for from a live performance.
The High Definition PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 audio tracks on the Blu-ray however really work marvellously, the mixing giving the voices adequate space, while putting across the full splendour and luscious beauty of a score that, superbly performed by the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Andrew Litton, ranges from delicate, sparkling playfulness to brooding, contemplative melancholy. Consummately Richard Strauss then, and this performance amply demonstrates the qualities and strengths of an opera that, like much of the composer’s late work, remains largely unknown, underperformed, underrated and surely ripe for rediscovery.