Monday, 13 October 2014

Strauss - Daphne (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Daphne

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2014

Lothar Koenigs, Guy Joosten, Iain Paterson, Birgit Remmert, Sally Matthews, Peter Lodahl, Eric Cutler, Tineke Van Ingelgem, Maria Fiselier, Matt Boehler, Gijs Van der Linden, Kris Belligh, Justin Hopkins

La Monnaie Internet Streaming - October 2014

Richard Strauss' late one-act 'bucolic tragedy' Daphne (written originally as an unlikely companion piece for Friedenstag) is as musically sumptuous and rich in melody as any post-Elektra Strauss opera, but it has to be said that it is a very dry mythological subject that inspires such beautiful music. Directing Daphne for La Monnaie, Guy Joosten attempts to enliven the work with some contemporary relevance, but in the end, it's the visual extravagance of Alfons Flores set design and some gorgeously lyrical singing that ensures that the production suitably matches the shimmering beauty of the score.

It's not too difficult to see what differentiates the treatment of mythology in Daphne and the preceding opera Der Liebe der Danae from the likes of Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos, and that's the difference between librettists Joseph Gregor and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Gregor was a writer, historian and classicist, while Hofmannsthal is a poet and an artist who was capable of drawing out challenging and experimental themes from the subjects for Strauss to respond to in his music. It's particularly noticeable where passages of Daphne resemble scenes from Ariadne auf Naxos, the former having none of the edge of the latter's juxtaposition of opera seria and opera buffa, and none of the deeper exploration of the sentiments that this conflict draws out.

There is at least a strong division of sensibilities to work with in the mythical story of Daphne from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Essentially, it's a conflict between nature and order, or the world of nature and the world of man. Daphne is a child of nature who has grown up in close relationship with a laurel tree. She's suspicious of social order and conventions, refusing even to dress up and join in the celebrations for Dionysus that is the excuse for wild revelry and excess among the shepherds and fishermen. Her pure nature also makes her draw away from the declarations of love of the young shepherd Leukippos. Apollo himself appears, disguised as a herdsman, seeming to offer a love that is more pure and in touch with her feelings, but Daphne eventually shies away from his advances too.

In Guy Joosten's production, the contrast between Daphne's child of nature and the world of man is put across - and unnecessarily overemphasised perhaps - in a manner that quite literally depicts her as a tree-hugger in conflict with an economic banking system. It's a system that suggests order and prosperity, but in reality it's on the brink of collapse through its worship of technology, money and its indulgence in excess. It's not a particularly subtle commentary on contemporary society, but it is a meaningful way to define the distinctions at conflict in the mythological tale. The way that it is presented however, and how the resolution to the dilemma of Daphne's position is arrived at by the all-important conclusion, is nonetheless effectively delivered.

The conclusion is a beautiful one - particularly as it is scored by Strauss - but dramatically it can still be rather dry. It's handled very well here however in the modernised production that pushes the concept a little further. Apollo's anger at his rejection and betrayal by Daphne result in the death of Leukippos and an almost cataclysmic upheaval of the "system". That mainly takes the form of little more than a set of stairs that buckle and put the lights out on all the city dealing, but Daphne's transformation into a laurel tree is somewhat more elaborately staged in a way that would appear to have broader meaning - or at least come closer to the impact Strauss is aiming for.

Rather than metamorphose into a tree, Sally Matthews' ecological warrior climbs the huge thick-trunk tree that looms over the stage throughout and seems to merge into it. This is achieved though projections that then see the tree consumed in a huge conflagration that is less pastoral symphony and closer to the end of times conclusion of Götterdammerung, giving the work a broader sense of nature in the end reasserting its authority over man-made attempts to control it. It might seem to be stretching the purpose of this slim one-act opera into something as ambitious as a Ring cycle and I'm not convinced that conductor Lothar Koenigs captures the transcendent beauty of the transformation music, but seen in this light, the Late Romantic Wagnerian influence that persisted in Strauss' writing through to his latter works does seem more evident, and the idea seems to work.

The primary reason that the story works effectively at all is of course down to how Strauss scores those key scenes, and much also depends on how well it's played and sung. Sally Matthews might not be quite as silky-voiced as some Strauss sopranos, but there's force there and passion that suits Daphne. Her lament for Leukippos is almost devastating, fully bringing out all the pain of her character and the aching beauty of the score. It helps considerably that you feel for both Leukippos and Apollo too, particularly since they are so beautifully sung here. Eric Cutler's Apollo combines a heldentenor quality with a beautiful light lyricism and warmth that fits the Strauss/Wagner qualities of the score. Peter Lodahl's Leukippos has an even brighter timbre that is sweet and expressive. Iain Paterson and Birgit Remmert are also notable as Peneios and Gaea.

Link: La Monnaie - De Munt