By Susan Brodie
BRUSSELS — In observance of the Richard Strauss 150th birth year, La Monnaie recently presented the company premiere of Daphne in a new production by Guy Joosten. The opera was written during turbulent times, both in the political sphere and in Strauss’s artistic life. After Hugo von Hofmansthal’s death in 1929, Strauss worked with Stefan Zweig on Die schweigsame Frau. But Zweig was Jewish, and soon persona non grata in Germany. Strauss lost his apparently uncomfortable, and briefly held, position with the government’s music ministry for fulminating about the Nazis in a letter he wrote to Zweig. Daphne’s librettist, Josef Gregor, a Viennese theater archivist and amateur philologist, proved less than an artistic soul mate, but he was malleable enough to provide Strauss with a play that expanded on Ovid’s tale to make Strauss’ points.
In the original myth, Daphne, the daughter of earth and the river (Gaia and Peneios), is the innocent victim of Cupid’s malicious trick on Apollo: Cupid makes Apollo fall in love with Daphne but makes Daphne reject Apollo. Zeus protects Daphne’s virtue by turning her into a laurel tree. In Strauss’ “bucolic tragedy,” the tale unfolds around the shepherds’ feast of Dionysos, a fertility rite, which interests the nature-loving Daphne even less than the romantic attentions of her childhood friend Leukippos. Apollo, smitten with and rejected by Daphne, kills his rival, but consoles the grieving Daphne by transforming her into a laurel tree.
The drama in Daphne can get lost in the flowery language and extra plot elements layered onto the original myth, making for a confusing evening. To prepare viewers, La Monnaie presented libretto readings by the Walpurgis theater collective, which has collaborated with the opera house on other productions. Conceived by Judith Vindevogel, the company’s founder and artistic director, the presentation, given in both French and Dutch versions, used a simplified script as a point of departure for playful riffs on the text that illuminate the human situation.
Singers (soprano Vindevogel, mezzo Euridike De Beul, and tenor Denzil Delaere) inserted snippets of the score, and an electric guitar, a gaggle of exotic flutes, and the voices of the ensemble provided key musical themes, notably the alphorn motif. Narrative commentary and improvisation, particularly by the devilish actor Stefaan Degand (Apollo), and by the singing actress Euridike De Beul, whose uninhibited solo dance in place of the bacchanal conveyed the earthy underpinnings of the story undisguised by pretty poetry. For the Walpurgis troupe, Daphne is primarily about sex.
But in Guy Joosten’s updated high-concept opera production, Daphne represents rebellious youth that knows what it doesn’t want without knowing how to act. In contrast to Walpurgis’ lisping, childlike Daphne, Joosten’s dreamy and feisty heroine, in patchwork denim and red high-tops, is, quite literally, a tree hugger — she begins and ends the opera perched high in the branches of an enormous tree that looms over a center staircase framing the playing spaces (set by Alfons Flores). The lights (by Manfred Voss) come up on the shepherds: A ribbon of stock symbols streams above a crowd of suited commodity traders, throwing hand symbols and stabbing at iPads that continue to pulsate from their wall storage after the market’s closing.
Daphne is an Occupy Wall Street protester, disgusted by the money-grubbing, technology-obsessed world of the “shepherds” and her parents, dissolute one-percenters in evening dress. As she sings her lament for the setting sun, projections (by Franc Aleu) show the flowing river below. She has no time for her friend Leukippos (Peter Lodahl), who looks ready to go clubbing dressed in Palm Beach pink and a pork-pie hat (costumes by Moritz Junge). Gaia’s maidservants try to dress Daphne for the party in Gucci and Prada. The obligatory orgy — the bacchanal honoring Dionysos — was surprisingly tame, despite the satyr-like figures on stilts in bondage wear. The Wall Street updating of ancient history is no longer a novel concept; its specificity is dated and detracts from the universal emotions of the story. But that tree is a very powerful image.
The best of the cast were the Daphne and Apollo. British Soprano Sally Matthews may not have the most glamorous-sounding Strauss voice today, but she sounded effortless in the high-flying coloratura and sumptuous and unforced in the more lyrical passages, even while climbing a rope ladder. She was persuasive and moving in the difficult role.
American tenor Eric Cutler has grown into a solid heroic singer, at ease with sustained high tessitura and cutting an impressive figure as Apollo onstage. Among the smaller roles were two rising young American bass singers, Justin Hopkins and Matt Boehler, who both sounded like talents to keep an eye out for.
Conductor Lothar Koenigs led one of the best performances I’ve heard from the company’s orchestra. La Monnaie is not a Strauss house, but the players rose to the demands of a score that expresses much of the drama of transformation in intricate passages of distinctive color and great transparency. Musically more like Die Frau ohne Schatten than either Elektra or Der Rosenkavalier, Daphne is largely tonal and wholly exquisite. While Strauss avoided Viennese popular references, he incorporated elements of Bavarian folk music, notably the alphorn and transparent yet complex textures that foreshadow the musical language of Capriccio.
In the hypnotic finale, Daphne’s metamorphosis into a tree is depicted entirely without words. As purifying flames engulf the tree, the music gradually rises in pitch, till Daphne joins the delicate, sparkling violins in an ecstatic vocalization. If La Monnaie’s rendition lacked the extreme finesse of the version recorded by Karl Böhm, the work’s dedicatee, it nonetheless created magic.
Daphne plays through Sept. 30. Tickets available here.
Daphne will be available for free streaming on demand from Oct. 1-21.