Sunday, 19 February 2017

Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae (Salzburg, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae

Salzburger Festspiele - 2016

Franz Welser-Möst, Alvis Hermanis, Krassimira Stoyanova, Tomasz Konieczny, Norbert Ernst, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Regine Hangler, Gerhard Siegel, Pavel Kolgatin, Andi Früh, Ryan Speedo Green, Jongmin Park, Maria Celeng, Olga Bezsmertna, Michaela Selinger, Jennifer Johnston

ORF2 - August 2016

"All that glisters is not gold", Shakespeare tells us in 'The Merchant of Venice', and the distinction is a relevant one in the case of Strauss's treatment of the King Midas myth in his late opera Die Liebe der Danae. Even though the opera was developed from an idea by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and is scored to some of Richard Strauss's most gorgeous and extravagant musical arrangements, the resulting work lacks the depth of their earlier collaborations, lacks an edge and does feel a little out of touch with the realities of the changing times in which it was composed. And yet, like the similarly compromised Arabella, it is not without merit, particularly if a director is able to bring something to it.

There is plenty of glitz and glister in Alvis Hermanis's production of the work for Salzburg, but not much that really taps into a seam of gold. It's all decorative, aiming for a generic fairytale look and feel with little care about whether it makes sense, and certainly not caring to look any deeper into the work for social commentary or contemporary relevance. Whether there is much to be gleaned on those levels from Josef Gregor's libretto is doubtful, but at least the Deutsche Oper production from 2011 attempted to relate the curse of Midas's gift to that of the "golden touch" of the composer, and also see the aging Strauss in terms of Jupiter's failing powers and influence in the new world. This however just feels like empty spectacle.

That in itself could be seen as a valid reaction to the piece as Der Liebe der Danae is certainly all glittery show, its lush post-Wagnerian Romantic melodic sweep as easy on the ear as the set designs are on the eye in this Salzburg production. Hermanis arranges the first two Acts as a decorative display of constant motion and changing colour, which at least reflects the musical flow of the work. That's the same principle that the director applied to the metronomic rhythms of Janáček's Jenůfa at La Monnaie, and here another parade of dancers in gold skin-tight suits are frequently present, dancing and writhing at the back of the stage.

It's not totally gratuitous then as it does relate to the dream-like quality of the music, which is itself an expression of the hopes of the bankrupt King Pollux to find a wealthy suitor to marry his daughter Danae and save him from his debtors. Her portrait has gone out to King Midas, so he has high hopes for the best possible match. Danae is also in the thrall of a dream, seeing her lover bring her gifts of gold, but it seems that those dreams might be frustrated when it is not Midas who arrives bearing gifts, but his messenger Chrysopher. Or so it seems. In reality, Jupiter is up to his old tricks, posing as Midas in order to seduce yet another mortal woman, and his messenger is indeed the real Midas.

The Salzburg production certainly gives a bold, colourful setting for this dream fairytale, its golden-red glows and exotic costumes all contributing to this effect, but it's all very random and free-associative. It's like, what's the first thing you think of when you hear this opera? Fairy tales and the Arabian Nights? Well, that's good enough, no-one is going to think too deeply about Der Liebe der Danae. This could account for the undue emphasis placed on Midas's past as a donkey driver in Syria dominating the tone and locations for Act III, the setting clearly evoking some kind of contemporary allusions for the director.

Hermanis is controversially on record for voicing his objections to Germany's refugee policy, quitting a theatre where he was contracted to work in Hamburg. Although those objections were supposedly based on fears of importing terrorism, there was a unpleasant racist tone to them that could be seen to be reflected in the caricatures of middle-eastern men in over-sized turbans and women with exaggerated breasts grasping for riches. The bottom line however is that the production is not terribly imaginative, it doesn't appear to have any consistency or purpose, and is merely static and decorative. It's certainly lovely to look at, but it doesn't really do justice to the characterisation or the treatment of mythology in the opera, nor does it manage to apply it meaningfully to any contemporary reality.

As with much Strauss, particularly those that are more Wagnerian in scope (and there are many correspondences here with the Ring), the voices and the ability to meet the singing challenges count for a lot here. The individual members of the principal cast in the Salzburg production are all exceptionally good, but there is some terrific ensemble work from the other character roles of the four kings and Jupiter's old flames Semele, Europa, Alkmene and Leda. Krassimira Stoyanova yet again demonstrates for me that she is one of most impressive singers of Strauss around today. Her interpretation and acting aren't particularly exciting - not that she is given much character to work with here - but her range, technique and the timbre of her voice are all just wonderful.

Much the same could be said about Tomasz Konieczny. I was unimpressed by his Wotan for the Vienna Ring Cycle two years ago where he had the vocal ability but a rather grating tone. Here however in the Wotan-like role of Jupiter, he combines power with superb vocal colouring. The all-important closing scenes of Die Liebe der Danae between Danae and Jupiter consequently are vividly expressed. Gerhard Siegel is certainly more lyrical in the human role of Midas, if not really a convincing rival in the romantic stakes. Norbert Ernst's cuts an appropriately bright and sparkling figure as the Loge-like Merkur, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is excellent in the role of King Pollux. With a cast like this and Franz Welser-Möst conducting an unrestrained (a little too unrestrained?) account of Strauss's extravagant arrangements and melodies, it's disappointing that Alvis Hermanis is unable to rise to the heights that Strauss was aspiring to, but of course never quite reaching himself.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele, ORF2