Strauss Rarity ‘Daphne’ Gets A Ringing Revival, Beautiful And Very Loud

Jana McIntyre triumphed in the title role in Strauss’ ‘Daphne’ with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall under Leon Botstein. (Photos by Matthew Dine)

NEW YORK — One of Richard Srauss’ later operas, Daphne (introduced by Karl Böhm in Dresden in 1938) got a loud but highly enjoyable performance under Leon Botstein March 23 in his American Symphony Orchestra series at Carnegie Hall. Soprano Jana McIntyre, who had starred in the Botstein-led, even more rarely heard Die schweigsame Frau at Bard Summerscape in 2022, gave a remarkable and tireless performance in the demanding title role.

Daphne follows in the line of Strauss operas from Elektra through Die Liebe der Danae engaging with Classical Greek myths, here largely through the Latin filter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The beautiful daughter of a fisherman (Peneios), Daphne wants no part in adult romantic life and her community’s ritual Dionysiac celebrations. She is betrayed by the desire of two tenor characters: her childhood friend Leukippos, and (initially disguised as a cowherd) Phoebus Apollo, both of whom she’d prefer to see as brother figures. Being tenors, they clash, and Apollo reveals his identity in striking his rival dead; but he feels such pity for the horrified Daphne that he allows her to escape her mortal destiny and transmogrify into a tree, surrounded by the natural beauty she worshipped.

This can be seen in the context of 1938 Germany as escapist, but also an endorsement of aesthetics as a moral choice. The Metropolitan Opera has never staged Daphne, though it’s a more musically compelling and dramatically cogent work than the last full collaboration with Hofmannsthal, Die ägpytische Helena, seen there in 1928 and 2007. The libretto by Joseph Gregor can seem prolix, but the composer shaped it well, with only the scene of the festivities tending towards the “note spinning” of which his late works stand accused.

Kyle van Schoonhoven (Apollo) and Jana McIntyre (title role) in the American Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Strauss’ ‘Daphne’ at Carnegie Hall.

The opera’s original heroine was Margarete Teschemacher, an Elsa and Sieglinde, and its first recording featured Strauss’ favorite in the role, the similarly ample-voiced Maria Reining. Böhm’s excellent live recording of 1964 featured Hilde Güden, perhaps influencing subsequent casting of lighter, Mozartean voices (in slim bodies) in the role. Gloria Davy headlined the work’s 1960 American premiere in concert with Thomas Scherman‘s Little Orchestra Society. Andrew Davis led concert readings with Catherine Malfitano (Carnegie, 1986) and Janice Watson (San Francisco Opera, 1993). Semyon Bychkov and forces from Cologne led a high-gloss post-recording tour with Renée Fleming, touching down at Carnegie in 2005. Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra toured a generally impressive version to Avery Fisher Hall in 2015 with Vienna State Opera house soprano Regine Hangler.

Only two major U.S. companies have staged the opera: Santa Fe (1964, Sylvia Stahlman; 1981, Roberta Alexander; Erin Wall, 2007) and New York City Opera in 2004 with Elizabeth Futral. Some festival might mount a production for Jana McIntyre, who showed herself an utterly convincing Daphne both vocally and interpretively. Admirably independent of her score, she phrased both words and music beautifully throughout in an always audible and on-pitch soprano of considerable flexibility and appeal. This may prove, as it was for Malfitano, a career-changing performance.

As is his wont, Strauss places almost unfulfillable demands of stamina and tessitura on his leading tenors; surely the Böhm recording’s James King (Apollo) and Fritz Wunderlich (Leukippos) set the bar impossibly high, though Johan Botha with Bychkov and Andreas Schager with Welser-Möst also excelled as the arrogant god. While Botstein found highly acceptable vocalists for both roles, his decibel level did not make things easy on them or allow for much light and shade. His head buried in the score, young Kyle van Schoonhoven managed Apollo fairly well in a reedy-timbred but promising and sturdy voice, though he did not make much impact dramatically. Aaron Blake’s Leukippos was more engaged though less idiomatic with the text.

Ronnita Miller’s signature role is Erda, and her very fine Gaea showed remarkable power and authority over a wide range. The true discovery among the vocalists was young bass Stefan Egerstrom, the Peneios. He’s the Fourth Noble in the Met’s new Lohengrin — as inconspicuous a Wagnerian role as exists — but will surely grow into major assignments. Egerstrom’s lush, powerful instrument packed a visceral punch and seemed effortless in filling the hall. As with Salome, Elektra, and Die Frau ohne Schatten in particular, it helps if Daphne‘s small parts (four shepherds and two maids) wield very good voices. The only Shepherd that could hold his own with the racket Botstein unleashed in their scenes was experienced and capacious-voiced baritone Kenneth Overton. The two women get quite exposed and challenging music. Mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon sang strongly and firmly; Marlen Nahhas offered fine full lyric timbre but grew slightly shrill at climaxes. James Bagwell’s fine Bard Festival Chorale, sequestered behind the orchestra, participated vigorously and sonorously. The brass and violins handled their duties notably well, and it’s always a kick to see and hear an alphorn.

The evening had opened with the kind of academic footnote that Botstein likes to provide. Gregor’s original scheme for Daphne — undertaken in consultation with Strauss’ previous librettist, Stefan Zweig — included a choral apostrophe to the tree that Daphne had become. Strauss eventually, and wisely, decided to make the heroine’s apotheosis largely an instrumental affair, and provided some of his most melodious and moving late-career efforts, incorporating voice only in the wordless final descants of the heroine.

Strauss loved this scene; famously, he had its score on his bedside table the night he died in 1949. But five years after Daphne premiered, he set a nine-part extended version of the choral text for a cappella use; Felix Prohaska gave its first performance in Vienna in 1947. Botstein led Bagwell’s augmented forces in what is now called An den Baum Daphne, just over a quarter of an hour of beautiful but — to judge from the singers’ occasional strayings from pitch — difficult and complex chromatic writing. I’m grateful that the Carnegie Hall audience got to hear this rarity, but Strauss was absolutely correct in his instinct not to make it part of the opera.