An opera about a girl who turns into a tree does not, on the face of it, sound especially promising. But that’s the heroine’s fate in Richard Strauss’s Daphne, written in 1937, and that final scene is drop-dead gorgeous. Not so long ago, a taste for this luscious music was considered a guilty pleasure best savored in secret—Strauss, we were told back then, may have shocked the world with Salome in 1905, but he outlived his time and died a pathetic old dribbler with nothing left to say. Well, we can forget that conventional wisdom since it’s now apparently okay for us retros to fess up that we loved late Strauss all along. The composer’s final operas are now extravagantly praised by the musical Establishment, and they turn up everywhere. Even Daphne is finally having its first staged performances in New York, thanks to the enterprise of the City Opera.
Of course, this salutary reassessment was bound to be accompanied by much theorizing about works that are still largely unfamiliar. The ancient Greek myth of the mortal nymph Daphne transformed into a sacred laurel tree in order to escape the unwelcome advances of Apollo is rich in allusion, especially considering the year in which Strauss wrote the score. For some, this rather unpleasant depiction of Apollo as a bullying and self-regarding aggressor surely represents the Third Reich in ascendance (just as Jupiter, the weary and ineffectual chief god in the composer’s next opera, Die Liebe der Danae, functions as a symbol of Germany’s defeat). For others, Daphne’s retreat from the real world into the harmonious realm of nature is a metaphor for the sort of “inner migration” so many German intellectuals chose during a time of political madness. For old Strauss, whose priorities never went much beyond caring for his family and the fruits of his labor, Daphne’s magical transformation may simply have been his way of describing the mystical passage from life to death—apparently he continually played this music on the piano in the days before he died in 1949.
“Strauss, a famous tenor hater, here wrote two more tough roles for high male voice.”
The City Opera production, directed by Stephen Lawless and designed by Ashley Martin-Davis, hints at all of this by dressing the principals in typical Attic attire, while the minor characters appear in more contemporary costumes (a few shepherds even sport SS-officer caps). The bleak set, dominated by several dead trees on marble pedestals labeled KUNST, MUSIK, etc., hardly suggests the presence of fertile nature, while the difficult challenge of depicting Daphne’s final metamorphosis is simply ignored: Here, she merely stands on top of a pillar that rises out of the stage to meet a descending heavenly laurel wreath. The stage picture in general comes off as a rather lame middle-of-the-road approach to an admittedly problematic libretto, perhaps offered in the hopes that Strauss’s potent musical imagery will carry the day.
Which for the most part it does, in a carefully prepared performance affectionately conducted by George Manahan, even if what we are hearing strikes my ears as a slightly reduced orchestration—Strauss requires a huge string section to create the intricate thematic tapestry of his finale as Daphne’s wordless vocalise soars over the rustling wind, branches, and leaves. Elizabeth Futral’s light voice at times sounds rather underpowered in the heroine’s more stressed-out moments, but her unblemished soprano shapes the vocal line’s lyrical contours ravishingly, and she even makes Daphne’s dilemma seem almost appealing. Strauss, a famous tenor hater, here wrote two more tough roles for high male voice: Leukippos, Daphne’s mortal suitor, deftly negotiated by Roger Honeywell, and Apollo, sung with manly pride and a minimum amount of strain by Robert Chafin. The rest of the cast does its best to help make Strauss’s Indian-summer score glow warmly. Even if the production is not much to look at, the musical performance creates more than enough heat and light to convince lingering doubters that Daphne is a beauty, an opera that has been kept out of sight far too long.