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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Opera Review: It's Not Easy Bein' Green

The Cleveland Orchestra brings Daphne to Lincoln Center Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst (right) conducts Regíne Hangler and Andreas Schager (left) in a scene from Daphne.
Photo by Stephanie Berger © 2015 Lincoln Center Festival.
In bringing the Cleveland Orchestra to play Daphne at the Lincoln Center Festival, conductor Franz Welser-Möst has declared his intention to one day restore this potent and moving Richard Strauss opera to the repertory. On Wednesday night, Mr. Welser-Möst may well have succeeded in getting the opera back on the radar of New Yorkers who may know Rosenkavalier and Salome but have ignored not to delve into the considerable riches of the later Strauss catalogue. In this performance Daphne proved to be  an engrossing, enchanting 100-minute opera, a feast for the ears and an unheralded example of this composer's fertile late style.

The operas written by Richard Strauss in the penultimate part of his long career are curiosities, dusted off for occasional festival performance and subjected to the general critical view that these works are inferior to the six the composer produced in his long collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. In the first of two performances schedule this week, Mr. Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra made the case for Daphne, a "bucolic tragedy" written and premiered in 1938 as war loomed over Europe.

Strauss wrote Daphne with librettist Joseph Gregor, a Nazi-approved replacement for his previous librettist, the Jewish poet Stefan Zweig. (In 1934, Zweig's name  had been struck from the programmes of Strauss' previous opera Die Schweigsame Frau). Strauss and Gregor went back to Greek myth to retell the story of a river nymph pursued by a mortal shepherd and the jealous (and ultimately homicidal) sun god Apollo.  The one-act opera originally planned as part of a double bill with the anti-war opera Friedenstag. To a modern audience, its green fields and bubbling brooks seem like an idyllic retreat from the ugly truth of Nazi Germany.

In the title role, soprano Regíne Hangler followed her character's path of transformation, from naïve nymph to the object of affection of Apollo and Leukippos to laurel tree. This was a committed and passionate performance, with the title character's unearthly nature and emotional reserve giving way to the feelings of a passionate woman in love. In the final transformation, Ms. Hängler sang offstage over a slowly pulsing orchestra. Finally her last words became vocalise, the rustle of wind through leaves.
The role of Apollo is not long, but it is one of Strauss' cruelest pieces of writing for the tenor voice. Seeking to portray  the dazzling nature of the Sun God, Strauss chose an upper register that can prove taxing to even the sturdiest singer. Andreas Schager produced a clean golden tone, reflecting the boundless, unearthly enthusiasm that is written in a series of gradually rising, and ultimately grueling climaxes. He stayed in his high tessitura each time, producing bright, ringing notes that cut through the thick orchestration like rays of sunlight bursting through the clouds.

Leukippos, the hapless shepherd who falls for Daphne and is ultimately killed by Apollo is another difficult role. One wished for more sweetness and stage presence from tenor Norbert Ernst, but the singer did manage to convey the unlucky nature of this character. The role of Peneios, Daphne's river god father was sung by Ain Anger, an Estonian bass with rich tone and power coupled with a certain warmth that would make this singer a very good Wotan. He was paired with Nancy Maultsby as Gaea, a potent but somewhat bland mezzo-soprano.

Like Strauss' earlier Salome, Daphne begins with one woodwind, spinning out its plaintive melody before the rest of the enormous orchestra is brought into play. This is Strauss at his most pastoral: rich in detail and orchestral color with depictions of thunderstorms, reveling drunks and even a cattle stampede. Mr. Welser-Möst (who led performances of this opera in May at the Orchestra's home base Severance Hall) dove into the score with clarity and drive, whipping up tempests of sound and drawing out filigreed, almost baroque accompaniments for his generally excellent cast.

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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.