At Bard Summerscape 2011: the Greatest Opera You’ve (Probably) Never Heard.

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Gustav Klimt, Danae. oil on canvas, 1907, Galerie Wöhrle, Vienna

Gustav Klimt, Danae. oil on canvas, 1907, Galerie Wöhrle, Vienna

Die Liebe der Danaë

Libretto by Joseph Gregor
Based on a scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Music by Richard Strauss

First N.Y. Fully Staged production
July 29 – August 7, 2011

The Richard B. Fisher Center f or the Performing Arts at Bard College

The American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, Conductor

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to imply that Strauss’s penultimate opera, Die Liebe der Danaë, is really so obscure. However, the bizarre history of its belated première in 1952, three years after the composer’s death, and the opera’s extraordinary performance demands, have kept this work tucked away, overshadowed by the well-loved and more frequently performed Capriccio, Strauss’s very last opera.

In 1983, Eve Queler and the Opera Orchestra of New York presented the work in concert form shortly after a fully staged Sante Fe production in 1982.  The U.S. première was in 1964 at the University of Southern California.   Mr. Botstein and the American Symphony first performed the work, in concert, at Avery Fisher Hall, January 16, 2000.  His recording of that event was produced for TelArc and it remains probably the best realization on CD.

Mr. Botstein is a fervent advocate of this work and believes its failure in the Zeitgeist of the 1930s and 1940s indicates in the CD’s program booklet that the essentially anti-materialistic story was of little relevance during the war years, but has special resonance to our money-grubbing “Gilded Age” of today.  In 2000, when Mr. Botstein wrote his program notes for the opera, the world was quite different than it is now.  With the debt crisis galloping toward world ruin, Strauss’s tale might reverberate, in a tragic-comic way, with the real tenor of our time, and become something of a real morality tale for 2011.

The libretto, gestated from the pen of Joseph Gregor, a writer whom Strauss loathed, was based on a scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a writer whom Strauss revered. Ultimately, the tale wound up being a pastiche of the Greek myth of King Acrisius and his daughter Danaë, combined with the legend of King Midas whose golden touch was both a blessing and a curse.  At the opening of the opera, the character of Acrisius – called King Pollux in Gregor’s libretto – is hiding from a gang of creditors. His daughter Danaë, though reluctant to marry, is none-the-less seen as a catch for Midas, King of Lydia and the richest mortal on Earth. Such a match would secure Pollux’s financial position and satisfy his aggressive creditors. Danaë had been seduced by Jupiter who had appeared to her as a shower of gold.  Being thus enraptured by Jupiter, she is initially portrayed as a “material girl,” beguiled by gilt.  There is much confusion, however, since Jupiter, the grand roué of Olympus, masquerades as Midas to lure Danaë as a suitor.  However, the real Midas, relegated to a mere go-between by the bullying Jupiter, becomes object of Danaë’s affection.  After their first encounter and kiss, Midas’s curse changes her into a gold statue.  Even in this state, though, she vows that she would rather chose Midas over Jupiter. Jupiter, in his fury, takes away the magic touch from Midas, impoverishes him, while returning Danaë to her mortal state.   Midas and Danaë, now poor, are still contented by their love.  Jupiter, whose powers are waning, tries once more to woo Danaë with the promise of wealth to no avail.

The opera reveals Strauss’s ruminations of several spirits of the musical past: his own, in part, as well as those of Mozart and Wagner.  There are references to Daphne, Tristan und Isolde, Die Zauberflöte, Das Rheingold, and, in Jupiter’s galling fall and mortal return to Earth, to Die Walküre. One might justifiably claim that much of this work is derivative, but Strauss never fails to ravish us with breathtaking melody and sumptuous harmony.

The story of the opera’s contentious creation is a fascinating one which deserves more space and time than I can devote in this preview. However, I cannot resist a little bit of storytelling.  Strauss had strictly demanded that the work be performed two years after the war’s armistice, even if it were to be his own demise.  Clemens Krauss tempted the old composer to accept a possible performance in 1944, partly to honor Strauss in his eightieth year.  However, when Strauss had refused to billet German soldiers in his villa in Garmisch – we must remember that Strauss was rich after Salome and Der Rosenkavalier – he was punished by being cast as persona non grata, and “untouchable.”  Martin Bormann forced him to lodge the troops, and Strauss was virtually under house arrest.  The delusional and self-centered Strauss said, “I didn’t ask them [the soldiers] to fight for me!”  Having fallen once again from the Reich’s grace, and with the allies on Germany’s heels, Strauss would not be permitted a Danaë performance. Krauss, though, did perform the work in the composer’s presence at a “dress rehearsal” in Salzburg in 1944.  Feeling his own mortality and the impossibility of sustaining his art during these frightful times, Strauss, chastened by a dose of reality said wistfully, “Goodbye, until we meet in another world.”

There is much unforgettable music in Danaë. Perhaps the Interlude in Act III is the most memorable as it seems to foreshadow the introspective Metamorphosen. There are comic moments, fine choral sections, and wonderful solo ensembles. Mr. Botstein’s performance on TelArc is delightful, and we can expect something wonderful this summer before the two Sibelius weekends.

About the author

Seth Lachterman

Seth Lachterman lives in Hudson, New York. While dividing his past academic career between music (composition and musicology) and mathematics, he has, over past three decades written original and critical works on the Arts. His essays have appeared in The Thomas Hardy Association Journal, English Literature in Transition, and poetry in Raritan. As a charter member and past president of the Berkshire Bach Society, he provided scholarly program notes for the Society’s concerts for two decades. Simultaneously, he has been a principal at Encore Systems, LLC, a software and technology consulting company. From 2006, is president emeritus of Walking The Dog Theatre of Hudson, New York. Seth writes regularly for Berkshire Review of The Arts. When not listening to music, Seth Lachterman reads philosophy with a current interest in Heidegger.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Nedda Pollack August 5, 2011 @ 08:22

    Seth, thanks for the great advice on Danae. The music was indeed “the best we had never heard of”. And the production was witty and ironic without distracting from the music. Of course the Fisher Center was a treat for the eyes and ears. We appreciate the recommendation.

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