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Monday, August 1, 2011

Opera Review: Jumpin' Jupiter!

Die Liebe der Danae at Bard SummerScape.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Tenor Roger Honeywell, soprano Meagan Miller and four-fendered friend.
Act III of Die Liebe der Danae at the Bard Festival. Photo by Corey Weaver © 2011 Bard Festival.
The first fully staged performances of Richard Strauss' Die Liebe der Danaë took place this weekend at the Bard Festival. Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in a persuasive performance that should help restore this ignored opera to the repertory.

The demanding title role was sung by Meagan Miller, as the Greek maiden who finds herself pursued by the god Jupiter (baritone Carsten Wittmoser) and Midas, (Roger Honeywell) a donkey-driver who is Jupiter's cats-paw. In this version of myth (the libretto is by Josef Gregor) Midas gets the "golden touch" from Jupiter as a way of running interference with the god's jealous wife, Juno. But when Danae falls for Midas, the two men become rivals. Eventually, Midas and Danae are stripped of their assets. They choose a life together over Jupiter's golden temples. In a moving duet, the god reluctantly bids her farewell.

Like the other late Strauss operas, Danae is loaded with difficult vocal writing. The soprano part is both long and treacherous, all the way up to a high C-sharp at the very end. Ms. Miller, a past grand finalist at the Metropolitan Opera's vocal competitions, handled the part with power and beauty of tone. Baritone Carsten Witmoser was a moving presence as Jupiter, a high baritonal part that is a mirror of Strauss himself. Portrayed here as a money-throwing Wall Street maven à la Bernie Madoff, Mr. Wittmoser's Jupiter travels from romantic ardor to Wagnerian, godly rage, to warm resignation as he realizes that Danae really prefers Midas' hand and a life of poverty.

As Midas, tenor Roger Honeywell has a pleasing voice, but it was neither large enough or expansive enough to cope with Strauss' stentorian orchestra. Like most Strauss tenors, Mr. Honeywell did what he could with the punishing part, writing that indicated Strauss' sadistic attitude towards tenors. Although he had trouble with the extensive Act II love duet, he recovered for the last act, singing with beauty and sweetness in the duet as Midas and Danae explored their new circumstances as members of the suburban poor.

While Dr. Botstein led the New York premiere of the opera in a concert staging in Jan. 2000, (a performance recorded and released on Telarc) Danae remains one of the most obscure Strauss operas. It presents considerable challenges for the bold director willing to take it on. This smart staging by Kevin Newbury (with clever, minimal sets by Rafael Viñoly amd Mimi Lien) updated the court of King Pollux to the board-room of a Wall Street skyscraper. The choristers: suited businessmen attempting to collect debts. Danae herself is a high-fashion model, appearing in perfume ads as a kind of operatic Mary Jane Watson.

The many visual challenges (Jupiter's entry as a shower of golden rain, Danae being turned into a golden statue) were solved with wit and smart visuals. The humble third act was set in the swamps of Jersey, the sole shelter being a lone two-door hatchback (which looked like an AMC Pacer), parked in the marsh, with the towers of Manhattan far in the distance.

Strauss composed Danae in 1940, as the dark clouds of war roiled over Germany. He saw a dress rehearsal at the Salzburg Festival in 1944, but the work was never performed in his lifetime. In fact, it belongs to the beginning of the composer's late period. The score is burnished with warm chords that echo its gold-obsessed plot, lending an autumnal glow to the complex harmonies. The libretto has some unexpected twists and turns and real humor. Much of this was lent by tenor Dennis Petersen as the bankrupt King Pollux, and a fine quartet of budding divas: Aurora Sein Perry, Camille Zamora, Jamie Van Euck and Rebecca Ringle as four of Jupiter's ex-lovers.
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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.