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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

DVD Review: Getting Out of the 1%

Die Liebe der Danaë from Deutschen Oper Berlin.
Material girl: Midas (Matthias Klink) and Danaë (Manuela Uhl) in Die Liebe der Danaë.
Photo by Barbara Aumüller © 2011 Deutschen Oper Berlin.
A new recording or performance of Die Liebe der Danaë, the penultimate opera by Richard Strauss, is a rare thing. But thanks to curiosity and scholarship, recent years have been kinder to Strauss' "cheerful mythology," a bittersweet comic tale of the god Jupiter (Mark Delavan) and his quest to bed the title character. This production, from the Deutschen Oper Berlin is staged by Kirsten Harms with a minimum of regie interference. Andrew Litton conducts this elaborate score.

Strauss worked on Danaë during the Second World War, and the opera has some of his most inspired orchestral ideas and complex writing for his favorite instrument: the female voice. The title role is taken here by Manuela Uhl, who has made it something of a specialty. She brings powerful, mostly pleasing tone to the high-lying vocal line, although the vibrato widens when the voice is put under pressure The last scene, with some of Strauss' most demanding writing for the soprano, is sung with transcendent, ecstatic power and warmth.

The hardest part to cast in Danaë is that of Midas, the donkey driver turned pretend-king. Tenor Matthias Klink impressed in the role, surmounting the heavy orchestration and reaching a dizzying height. The treacherous part is Act II, with two challenging, back-to-back duets. The first, a face-off with Jupiter, demands heroic singing from both men over a bellowing brass section. The second is the long love duet that ends in Danaë's brief death. 

Surrounded: Jupiter (Mark Delevan) and his ex-lovers in Die Liebe der Danaë.
Photo by Barbara Aumüller © 2011 Deutschen Oper Berlin.
Mr. Delavan is familiar to New Yorkers from the halcyon days of the New York City Opera, is Jupiter. This is Strauss' version of Wagner's Wotan, all hubris in the early going, all regret in the last act. The angry passages are a little much for Mr. Delavan's voice, and he fights admirably against the orchestral clamor. But he brings warmth and resignation to the last scene, when Danaë and Midas are settled in a humble hut, away from all that gold.

The large supporting cast is solid. A pair of character tenors:  Burkhard Ulrich and Thomas Blundelle do well here as the bankrupt King Pollux and Mercury, the gods' playful messenger. The four princesses (Semele, Alkmene, Leda and Europa) are past victims of Jupiter's advances, married off now to mortal princes. These parts are taken by an impressive quartet of singers, who look magnificent in white wigs.

Danaë has the (justified) reputation of being a tough opera to stage. For starters,  the libretto describes Jupiter's entrance as a shower of golden coins. Here, that image takes the form of sheet music, dropped slowly from heaven like divine inspiration. The transformations caused by Midas' deadly golden touch are handled by Manfred Voss' skillful lighting. Why a piano hangs suspended above the stage for the entire opera is anyone's guess. 


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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.