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Apollo vs. Dionysius

09/12/2023 -  & September 15*, 18, 21, 2023
Richard Strauss : Daphne, opus 82
Vera-Lotte Boecker*/Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Daphne), David Butt Philip (Apollo), Daniel Jenz (Leukippos), Noa Beinart (Gaea), Günther Groissböck (Peneios), Ileana Tonca, Gaële Le Roi (Two Maids), Marcus Peltz, Norbert Ernst, Ferdinand Pfeiffer, Hans Peter Kammerer (Four Shepherds)
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Martin Schebesta (chorus master), Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Sebastian Weigle (conductor)
Nicolas Joel (stage director), Pet Halmen (sets & costumes), Renato Zanella (choreography)

D. Butt Philip, V.‑L. Boecker (© Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn)

Of Richard Strauss’ fifteen operas, five have libretti based on Greek Antiquity: Elektra (1909), on Sophocles’s play, with Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die ägyptische Helena (1928), Daphne (1938) and Die Liebe der Danae (1952) based on Greek mythology. The earlier three have libretti written by Strauss’ favourite collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874‑1929). The latter two have libretti by Joseph Gregor (1888‑1960), based on outlines by von Hofmannsthal. The brilliant Austrian poet, playwright and librettist never reconciled with the abruptness of the twentieth century and the eventual demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and accordingly sought refuge in its nostalgic past, as seen in Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and even Arabella (1933) or in Antiquity and mythology, as he did in Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919). Strauss seems to have shared Hofmannsthal’s escapism. Choosing such a subject as Daphne in the late 1930s, with Germany in turmoil and the world on the edge of an abyss, supports such a view.

As in Die Frau ohne Schatten, which treats a mythological subject (Eastern in this instance) with a metaphysical vision, Daphne is not merely an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses where a chaste girl who loves nature and is unready for carnal love is transformed into a laurel tree. Strauss’s opera tells of Daphne’s transformation through Nietzsche’s dichotomy of Apollo vs. Dionysius. Apollo is supposed to represent reason and the structured form in art, while Dionysius represents emotion and uninhibited ecstasy. However, Apollo, in his lust for Daphne, succumbs to Dionysian instinct. As is typical in Hofmannsthal’s bittersweet outlook to life, he revels in the vagaries of life.

Musically, Daphne is most reminiscent of Ariadne auf Naxos. He may have been thinking of the earlier opera in his quest for inspiration. The lush sensual music, especially the Daphne-Apollo duet, seems like an extension of the Ariadne-Bacchus duet. Daphne’s maids evoke Naiad, Dryad and Echo, and to a lesser extent the shepherds evoke Arlecchino, Truffaldino, Scaramuccio and Brighella.

Daphne is rarely staged, most likely due to the difficulty in casting the title role as well as that of Apollo. Though Vera‑Lotte Boecker was a last minute replacement, she overcame the vocal challenges of the role with brio. Dressed and dolled up to look like one’s image of Mélisande, she appropriately looked and acted like an innocent femme enfant. Boecker was vocally incandescent and dramatically riveting in this mostly static role, quite an accomplishment. Her bright soprano rose above Strauss’ magnificently powerful orchestration. This role requires a pure yet powerful lyric soprano that radiates youth and innocence, similar to the ideal Elsa (Lohengrin) or Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) with particular ease in the upper register to overcome Strauss’ vocal writing in the final transformation scene.

Boecker was definitely up for the task. In this staging, director Nicolas Joel imagines Daphne as a sexually inhibited wife unable to accept her husband’s physical intimacy. This is a valid choice, especially given the period and the Viennese (i.e. Freud) connection via von Hofmannsthal and Gregor. The opera opens to Daphne sleeping on a Récamier sofa observed by a bearded man clad in black, her husband in real life and Apollo in her dream, for Joel imagines the opera as a wife’s sexual fantasy.

No less demanding is the role of Apollo, which requires a dramatic tenor with ease in the upper register. Again, Strauss must have been thinking of Ariadne auf Naxos’s Bacchus when he wrote this part. While Bacchus is a short role, Apollo is a long one. David Butt Philip’s interpretation of Apollo was a glorious one. His powerful voice has the necessary squillo to make him credible as a potent God. He went through his part with astounding vocal ease and impressed with his regal stage presence; true divinity!

The other roles were equally well cast. Günther Groissböck was an imposing Peneios, Daphne’s father. Daniel Jenz was a moving Leukippos; his earnestness touching and his demeanour evocative of a tormented soul. His sweet lyric tenor contrasted with Apollo’s much larger voice. Noa Beinart has a powerful mezzo, almost a contralto, which is most appropriate for the role of Daphne’s mother, the Earth Goddess Gaea. Her role is unusual for Strauss, who wrote very little for such a low voice. His major mezzo roles, Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Clairon (Capriccio) are for lighter mezzos. His other major mezzo roles, Herodias (Salome) and Clytemnestra (Elektra), depend more on acting than singing. Beinart impressed with her rich creamy dark voice, providing a lovely contrast to Daphne’s soprano.

Director Joel brilliantly transposed the action to the Munich of the 1930s, the turbulent time of the opera’s creation. Instead of Greek Antiquity, the setting is Villa Stuck, an Art nouveau/Art déco style villa built by painter, sculptor and architect Franz Stuck (1863‑1928). The Art nouveau element provides an evocative setting for what Strauss and Gregor described as a bucolic tragedy. The sets are a replica of an actual room in the villa with a vegetative panel of laurels and the statues of Apollo and Dionysius, the two gods involved with the story. This fortuitous choice confirms the value of having a worldly and cultured stage director/set designer, knowledgeable in history, literature and mythology (alas, a rare specimen today).

Needless to say, hearing the Wiener Staatsoper’s orchestra was a sublime aural experience in this work. Few orchestras can perform Strauss’ massive scores as adroitly. Sebastian Weigle brought out the nuances of Daphne’s score, from the soft opening sounds to the bombastic ones. He paid special attention to the needs of his soloists, especially Boecker and Butt Philip in their stratospheric parts.

This was one of the most moving opera performances I have ever experienced. It’s rare to experience a neglected operatic rarity performed by such glorious voices and a correspondingly sublime orchestra. To experience the vision of a brilliantly inventive stage director is its veritable cherry on top. Under such felicitous circumstances, Daphne deserves to be more frequently performed.

The ancient mythological story has survived in its place of birth, thought to be the Syrian city of Antioch (present day Turkey) where a nearby village is called Dafne. The Greek word for laurel is δάφνη (dáfni) and the Turkish word is defne. These vestiges of Antiquity in the present time are a reminder that Strauss’s quest for beauty and wisdom in ancient heritage are still relevant. May we remember and revere these!

Ossama el Naggar



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