I went to see a concert performance of Strauss’s one-act opera Daphne last night, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, directed by Franz Welser-Möst, and a series of soloists. I’d never seen – or, to be honest, ever even heard of this opera before, but what the hell, right?
This is one of those “Apollo and Dionysos”-themed things that writers and artists in the late 19th and early twentieth century were so fond of writing about – basically, if my memory of that college Literature and Arts B survey from 1999 is correct, there is a conflict and a balance between the Apollonian (the beauty of order and reason) and the Dionysian (wildness, irrationality, wine, love and so on). They are as distinct and mutually dependent as day and night. The plot of this opera is built around this idea, and around that story we all know about the young woman Daphne who is pursued by Apollo and gets turned into a laurel tree.
The story here is a little different than the tale as told by Ovid. (There are quite a few versions of the story; the librettist, Joseph Gregor, did not come up with what follows on his own.) Daphne is still woodsy and doesn’t want a boyfriend, but here she has a recorder-playing childhood buddy named Leukippos who has fallen in love with her and Apollo does not pursue her because he has been clipped by the arrow of a miffed Eros. He just sort of shows up for some reason and decides that he and Daphne would be great together, because they like some of the same things, like sunshine.
It’s the evening of the festival of Dionysos, and Daphne does not want to go. She has rejected both the disguised Apollo and the earnest Leukippos, but during the festival Leukippos, now also in disguise, gives her a sip of wine. Apollo flips his shit, he and Leukippos get into a fight, with the young man claiming that drinking wine at the festival has turned him into Dionysos himself, and Apollo loses his temper and zaps the poor kid with a lightening bolt.
Daphne performs her final aria in what one can only assume is a sort of smoking blast crater, in which she explains that she realizes this was all her fault (because of course it is, what with her being in charge of and responsible for other people’s behav– oh, wait, no it isn’t) and she is very sorry. And then Apollo turns her into a laurel tree.
The singing was generally strong. Nancy Maultsby as Daphne’s mother Gaea, started out wobbly in what is an alarmingly low alto part; Andreas Schager was a dramatic and passionate Apollo – he was was one of the highlights for me. Daphne was sung by soprano Regine Hangler, who sounded appropriately girlish, but not small. Her voice had a powerful bright edge; most of the time, when soaring above the orchestra was called for, she soared. The last bit of the opera, where Daphne is turning into a tree (and the libretto has her keep talking long after she should stop, what with having ceased to be a person – I mean, explaining that you are now a symbol is probably not strictly necessary, especially when you’re a tree, and also, opera audiences know about symbols) contains a lot of high floaty business, and she sounded a little pinched now and then, but on the whole I was impressed.
Strauss being Strauss, the orchestral music alone is worth the price of admission – nice touches included the metallic-sounding violin representation of Daphne’s leaves at the end when she has turned into a tree, and a section earlier on where a solo violin is interacting with the soprano part. I wouldn’t mind hearing more concert performances of Strauss.
Finally, the middle name of one of the singers portraying shepherds is “Speedo.” I tried several times to find a way to work this detail into the above discussion, but I couldn’t. So there it is at the end.