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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

CD Review: Renee Fleming in Daphne

Daphne is one of many Strauss operas concerned with Greek mythology. This is the story of a young maiden who becomes the love-object of the god Apollo. When she spurns him, he strikes her mortal lover dead and has her turned into a tree, so that he may smile on her always. At 100 minutes, the one-act opera is a lesser work in the Strauss catalogue, but it shines through with a burnished glow that looks forward to the composer's final period and the Four Last Songs.

Renee Fleming gives Daphne the right mix of girlish innocence and womanly warmth, singing with full, rounded notes that thrill the listener when she soars into her highest register. She is well-flanked by strong male leads who are at home in the high tenor and baritone parts.

South African singer Johan Botha brings his fine heldentenor to the role of Apollo. More subtle is the fine Korean baritone Kwangchul Youn as Leukippos, who manages to navigate this incredibly high part and act with his voice as well. But the finest performance here is Swedish contralto Anna Larsson in the key role of Gaea--her duet with Fleming is a highlight of the recording.

Semyon Bychkov is an interesting choice to conduct this opera. From the opening passages where woodwinds and bassoons paint the idyllic, pastoral landscape to the glorious final pages, Bychkov does a good job of conveying the Straussian tonal picture. This score is filled with some of Strauss's prettiest music, textured sheets of strings and wind that evoke rustling, shimmering leaves, held up by sturdy tree trunks of brass and percussion. The finale, where Daphne transforms, is a textbook in complex orchestration--this is Strauss at his most transcendant, played at the highest level.

The era of record companies allowing singers and conductors to record and perform obscure repertory may be at an end, killed off by the bloating of classical music catalogues and the rise of the megalithic "complete edition" box set. However, this fine recording from 2005 is worth listening to, for fans of Ms. Fleming, for Strauss-philes and for those who remember when the artists and labels had the economic freedom to offer up a gorgeous work like this for the discerning ear.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.