It’s not too often one gets to hear Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Daphne. It’s not so much the difficulty of the music – although that is challenging for the orchestra, the soloists, and in some ways the audience. It’s more that the piece isn’t very stageable. This adaptation of (and elaboration on) a tale out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is more moral conception than plotted story. Yet the music itself, wrapped around Joseph Gregor’s poetic libretto, is replete with drama. (Strauss’s preferred lyricist Stefan Zweig had fled the Nazis and was no longer in Germany.) On March 23 Leon Botstein, the American Symphony Orchestra, and a cast of fine singers delivered a concert performance at Carnegie Hall. This was a wise way to present it.
A Strauss Rarity
Rarer still than the opera itself is the choral epilogue Strauss wrote years after Daphne‘s premiere in 1938. The story concludes with Zeus transforming the impossibly beautiful Daphne, a chaste mortal girl buffeted between a human suitor and a besotted god, into a laurel tree. The composer originally intended to follow that with a choral paean to the newly mythologized being. Though he eventually decided on a stronger ending, with Daphne’s voice fading into an idealized Nature, he returned to the original idea years later and composed a choral epilogue that stands as an independent work. Botstein led the Bard Festival Chorale in this difficult, virtuosic work to open the concert.
I found the Epilogue, “An den Baum Daphne,” difficult to parse. Written in no fewer than nine voices, it brims with often unexpected harmonic movements and counterpoint, and struck me as overloaded with ideas. I appreciated the choir’s hard work in learning and putting it across, but I can’t say I enjoyed the piece very much.
A Sublime ‘Daphne’
The opera itself was another story. The powerful-voiced baritone Kenneth Overton lit up the setting-the-table scene as Adrast, the First Shepherd, explaining the impending Feast of Dionysus. Daphne then enters with a long recitative praising nature and bemoaning the wild revels. Soprano Jana McIntyre was in vibrant voice. She conveyed a whole constellation of emotions, enhancing her revelation of the character’s essence with body language that suggested she’d be a strong actor in a staged production.
Tenor Aaron Blake as Leukippos, Daphne’s childhood companion and aspiring lover, matched McIntyre’s living-the-lyrics energy. Their duet bubbled with drama. Mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller with her rich, compelling voice easily covered the range needed for her role of Gaea, Daphne’s mother, and bass Stefan Egerstrom adroitly handled the role of Peneios, Daphne’s father. Tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven’s glowing tone and steady power was a fine fit for the large role of Apollo.
Marlen Nahhas and Ashley Dixon had fun and sang beautifully as the Maids, who provide a touch of lighthearted relief from the mostly grim tale. The story is rather static, too, its central character devoid of agency. Daphne may get her wish and become one with nature in the end, but only by grace of a god’s kindness, and only after she had to witness the violent death of her friend.
The Gods Themselves
The stunning music was quickened by Botstein’s eloquent conception and the superb orchestra. There is distinct and sweet melody, as in the moment when Daphne explains to Gaea that while she will obey and attend the festival, “My spirit, mother/My spirit stays here” in the natural world’s embrace. When Daphne does manage to assert herself enough to refuse to wear the traditional dress, the orchestra drops out and she sings against the silence.
Dramatic musical moments elegantly paralleled the action, as when the disguised Apollo reveals himself with a clap of thunder, and later, when after he kills Leukippos, Daphne declares with a climactic high note that she will wait by his grave “until they call me/The proud masters/Who brought you death/and demanded love.” In a pre-concert lecture the conductor told us of the composer’s belief in the Western 12-tone classical music system as the pinnacle of human artistic achievement. Daphne may not be a great opera, but it shows a composer at the height of his powers – a lofty elevation indeed.
Botstein also pointed out that Strauss had no patience for the philosophical pretensions of Wagner. In addition to its own merits, this music works as a counterbalance to that larger-than-life force of the opera world. It exists solely on the strength of its own integrity and seemingly limitless creativity, not even needing a strong storyline to compel attention and admiration. I’m not sure how much better than this concert version a fully staged performance could be.