Golden Bough: Richard Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae
Bard Summerscape, August 5, 2011
Die Liebe der Danae
Libretto, Joseph Gregor after a scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Director, Kevin Newbury
Set design, Rafael Viñoly and Mimi Lien
American Symphony Orchestra,
Conducted by Leon Botstein, Music Director
Danae – Meagan Miller, soprano
Jupiter – Carsten Wittmoser, bass-baritone
Midas – Roger Honeywell, tenor
Pollux – Dennis Peterson, tenor
Xanthe – Sarah Jane McMahon, soprano
Semele – Aurora Sein Perry, soprano
Europa – Camille Zamora, soprano
Alcmene – Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo-soprano
Leda – Rebecca Ringle, mezzo-soprano
Merkur – Jud Perry, tenor.
In my preview of this opera, I maintained that Die Liebe der Danae (more properly, Danaë, emphasizing the “ahh-aay” of the last two vowels), is a rarely performed treasure from the last years of Richard Strauss. Based on Maestro Botstein’s wonderful recording a decade ago, I wondered whether an actual stage production could do justice to the music. Joseph Gregor’s libretto seemed wayward to me, so that seemed the biggest obstacle for a felicitous live production. In fact, this new production at Bard’s Summerscape, directed by Kevin Newbury, lived up to, and exceeded all my expectations. Musically, it turns out as one of Strauss’s most attractive works; and the libretto, while quirky and vapid at times, inspired a humorous, imaginative and completely enchanting production.
Mr. Botstein loves this work, as is evident in his years of its advocacy. He recorded it for Telarc, and it gave Strauss lovers a quality recording to enjoy. His high regard for Strauss, and this piece in particular, was evident tonight in the thoroughly convincing and nuanced reading he gave with the American Symphony Orchestra and first-rate soloists. Mr. Botstein’s conducting brought forth glowing sonorities and thrilling vocal tapestries, which are so difficult to project without either overwhelming the ear or tiring singers early on in the work. This Strauss score, like much of his densely-written works, requires delicacy, clarity and subtlety, and this, as well, was in perfect order.
The libretto took years of development, contention and refinement. Originally based on an idea of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’s original librettist with whom he produced some of his greatest works, it was redeveloped long after von Hofmannsthal’s death by Joseph Gregor, a librettist for whom Strauss had little artistic respect. Strauss and Gregor had collaborated in the pastoral tragedy, Daphne, in 1938. The opera that evolved from furious rewritings and haggling amongst Strauss, Gregor and Clemens Krauss was a comic pastiche of several Greek myths (with Romanized names), with a basic underlying moral: the pursuit of material gloss, is nothing but lust for ephemeral externals and comfortable circumstance; true love and happiness, however, can be like eternal bliss, even if you wind up spending your life in some rural nowhere inside a 1975 AMC Pacer (such was Newberry’s coup de théâtre in Act III).
Pollux, the financially ruined King of Eos, selfishly seeks to wed his daughter Danae to some wealthy suitor for a financial bailout. He sends his four nieces (the Four Queens) and their husbands (the Four Kings) to find the best man, who turns out to be King Midas of Lydia. However, the lustful god Jupiter, who is always on the prowl for true love, seduces Danae appearing as a golden shower, Der Goldregen, in an erotic dream. Jupiter then swaps places with Midas, purportedly to prevent his jealous wife Juno from discovering his meanderings. Jupiter had given the golden touch to Midas in return for the latter’s vow of absolute fealty. The real Midas, now called Chrysopher, is a sort of a P.R. front man for Jupiter who seeks to consummate a liaison with Danae. Tenor Roger Honeywell assumed the role with great vigor and vocal authority, and proved to be the most convincing actor of the cast. Carsten Wittmoser, a tall, striking looking bass-baritone, fit the role of Jupiter, the god of Lotharios, to a tee. His burnished and virile voice had the tinge of arrogance and egotism that suited the role.
When Jupiter and Chrysopher (Midas) arrive to Eos’s great anticipation (the creditors scurry about with their empty attaché cases held up, gaping open, appearing like so many hungry sea birds), Danae falls in love with Midas, but expects a golden ravishing as in her dream. Jupiter, like the golden idol worshipped by the errant Israelites, transforms the cityscape of Eos – looking more like New York or Los Angeles – into a visual pæan to the precious metal. Set designers Rafael Viñoly and Mimi Lien provided witty marketing imagery: billboards touting a new fashion scent, “Au” (the chemical symbol for gold) with images of Danae in a golden sheen. Things begin to unravel as Danae and Midas fall deeply in love. Jupiter is revealed, in some transformation or another, suiting the fantasy of each partner, as having had sex with each of the Four Queens (Danae’s cousins). His philandering, in spite of his genuine ardor for Danae, cannot be exculpated by the guarantees of wealth and eternal life he offers. Danae is no longer dreaming; she has found true love, even in spite of Midas’s golden curse which, after a touch transforms her into frozen gold. Midas has acted independently of Jupiter’s wishes, thus breaking his original vow to the god. So, Jupiter casts off the spell leaving Midas and his new love (now back to flesh) to fend for themselves in poverty. And so, in a decidedly rural setting, with nothing but that 1975 Pacer, the couple faces the vicissitudes of mortal life with the bond of mortal love and devotion. It’s hard to make all this over-thought German story buoyant and convincing, but it’s a measure of tonight’s production’s success that it did.
How to describe the music? For those who know Strauss’s operas, Danae is elusive. It is not like the early expressionist ones (Elektra or Salome), nor is it like the middle period mix of Romantic and Modern (Die Frau ohne Schatten or Die ägyptische Helena), nor the neo-Classical ones (Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio). This leaves Daphne, Arabella and Die schweigsame Frau. Indeed, one can say that Danae’s rich musical language is closest to that of Daphne, while the idea of profiting from a daughter’s marriage is a plot element of Arabella. Fugal passages and other neo-Baroque elements suggest the music of Die schweigsame Frau. What makes Danae quite different from any of these is its extreme vocal difficulty and huge instrumental forces which are nearly on a par with Die Frau ohne Schatten.
The vexing musical roots to this opera challenge us from the very start. When Act I begins, and King Pollux of Eos is being badgered by creditors ,“Der König, Wo?”(“Where is the King?”), the musical agitation is very reminiscent of Arabella’s opening scene where we sense the encroaching penury of the opera’s counterpart of Pollux, the erstwhile rich Count Waldner, who seeks a wealthy match for his daughter, Arabella, to relieve a financial burden. Also, the composer wastes little time delighting us with a scintillating duet for Danae and her servant Xanthe, “O Gold, O süßes Gold!” (“Oh gold, sweet gold!”). Danae is awoken in the midst of her lascivious dream. She can barely contain her erotic ecstasy, and her conviction it was real, as she confides in her unbelieving servant Xanthe. The duet becomes more harmonically enchanting, recalling to one’s mind a similar duet, “Ei, So fliegt sie dahin”(“Look, she runs so”), between the Two Maids in Daphne. Both duets exhibit Strauss’s practice of kaleidoscopically shifting harmonic rhythms. The subject of both duets is the seductive luster of precious metals or stones: in Daphne, the maids fantasize about jewels, and here, in Danae, about gold. One might even assume the music of Danae and Xanthe’s duet was leftover material from Daphne, such is the semblance in style. When Danae sings “Was Himmels Regen der Erde gibt – Das war das Gold mir, daß ich geliebt” (“That which heaven rains on earth is that what is gold to me, which I love”), Strauss makes this as a leitmotif throughout the composition denoting the shower of gold and the near sexual covetousness for wealth. However, when Danae and Xanthe sing “O Glückes Erinnern, herrlicher Traum!” (“What joy to remember this wonderful dream!”), the interplay is very similar to Arabella and Zdenka’s duet in Arabella, “Aber der Richtige.” Kevin Newbury’s staging in this scene is both simple and monumental. From high above Danae’s bed hundreds of tinsel strands descend upon her, shimmering with reflected stage lighting. By Act III, when Midas and Danae are living a peasant’s life, Strauss, correspondingly, strips much of the complexity from his harmonic and textural palette. The wonderful duet, “So führ ich dich mit sanfter Hand” (“Let me take you gently by the hand”), in its poise and simplicity, is reminiscent of a Schubert Lied, or even of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The musical contrast between the earthiness here, in simple digs, and the harmonically festooned writing in Act I (e.g. “O Gold, O süßes Gold!”) is striking.
Strauss never hid his love of the female voice either solo or in ensemble. The challenges his music poses for his soprano heroines are notorious. The vocal demands of Danae’s role are daunting, on a par with the Empress’s nearly impossible part in Die Frau ohne Schatten. The music requires extraordinary endurance, projection while preserving delicacy; the requisite vocal range challenges any soprano’s core tessitura. Meagan Miller, a seasoned vocalist with much international acclaim, has a luxurious and sonorous voice. Lower pitched than Lauren Flanigan featured in Mr. Botstein’s Telarc recording, Ms. Miller’s vocal colorings and nuances were varied and appealing. She sustained the weight of two hours of the taxing part with utter authority and confidence. Only in Act III, with Danae’s “Wie umgibst du mich mit Frieden” (“How peaceful I feel in this humble room”), an aria which foreshadows something of the composer’s Four Last Songs, did she show some strain in the high registers. Nonetheless, Ms. Miller’s performance was thrilling.
Special mention must be made of the Four Queens: Aurora Sein Perry, Camille Zamora, Jamie Van Eyck and Rebecca Ringle. Strauss lavished some of his most seductive music in their ensembles. Comically portrayed as coquettes, libidinously obsessed with their sexual encounters with Jupiter, each looked as seductive and enticing as she sang. In their quartet in Act III, “Wie sehr er scherzt, der göttliche Freund,” (“How he jokes, our godly friend”), the melodic and harmonic interplay of their voices was delightfully decadent.
Tenor Dennis Petersen was suitably self-absorbed and fusty as Pollux. Soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, as Xanthe, blended beautifully with Ms. Miller.
After so much incandescent music, I wondered why this opera has been such a rarity. Indeed, even Clemens Krauss, who premiered the work, regarded it as one of Strauss’s most difficult. During tonight’s intermission, I overheard a couple’s conversation: “I don’t know what to make of this. Sometimes it sounds like, well, really old classical music, and sometimes it’s modern – it’s really weird.” This comment might be appropriate made about many of Strauss’s operas. Perhaps the composer’s glaring ambivalence to modernity, and his Mozartian instinct for beautiful vocal lines and ensembles can be disconcerting. After all, twentieth-century opera is supposed to be expressed with the sensibilities of our time. Strauss’s odd mix can be unsettling, especially in a work written during the last Nazi years, as it blithely evokes pleasure from a musical past at odds with the time. Yet, doesn’t Strauss rely on the “timelessness” of myth to finesse his amalgam?
On a day in which global financial markets melted down, stocks and bonds took a nosedive, the price of gold soared to unprecedented heights, today’s performance had a special timeliness. Maybe, like Danae and Midas, if all goes bust, we can survive on love alone. I always thought AMC’s squat and homely Pacer was ahead of its time.