Blow a kiss, take a bough

Richard Strauss’s many one-act operas make excellent concert programs, both for their length (usually under two hours) and the primary place each gives the orchestration, a specialty where Strauss’s brilliance seldom deserted him. The wordless apotheosis into godly treehood that concludes his Daphne is rightly treasured, a sublime late Straussian idyll, and a concert performance spares us the muddle he and his librettist made of the myth.  

In an excellent performance, such as the one given Wednesday at the Lincoln Center Festival by the Cleveland Orchestra (to be repeated Saturday), Daphne, a “bucolic tragedy,” feels rather like Beethoven’s “Pastorale”: the countrified mood painting, rural fertility rituals, intruding storm and sublime resolution. The orchestra, of course, has been translated (you might say) from genteel Beethoven to rumbustious Strauss (perhaps these are settings on one’s ears, and you can flip a switch), but the mood and the arc are very similar.

Strauss’s librettist, Josef Gregor, has simply personified the orchestral tale, though (be it noted) he has not made much use of the Greek myth of Daphne. The legendary Daphne (trigger warnings!) is best represented by Bernini’s sculpture in the Galleria Borghese: The girl has cried out to her father, the river Peneios, for help in escaping rape by Apollo. Even as the sun god seizes her body, her father transforms it into a tree. From her expression, this is as unexpected to her as it is to the god and to us.

But Strauss had other ideas. In Daphne, first produced in 1938, the nymph, to the frustration of her parents (Peneios and Gaea), her transvestite boyfriend (Leukippos) and the amorous deity who comes calling, bow in hand, is not interested in the mammalian sex urge at all. From men, she desires only fraternal affection and is alarmed when they suggest more.

She wants wood, yes, but she wants to put a ring on it—annually. With bark. And leaves. Strauss’s Apollo does not attempt rape but seduction; nobly recognizing her personal preference, however (and having just slain her mortal lover), he grants the transformation. Jupiter, in the Strauss/Gregor Danaë, undergoes a similar alteration from mythic rapist into Mitteleuropaïsche gentleman.

Strauss badgered Gregor throughout the composition for more action, but the activity often feels incidental to the slight story. Even more than the sheer difficulty of not one but two impossible tenor parts, the muddle of meaning has kept Daphne from frequent staging.

In Daphne, we are shown a band of shepherds handling herds of sheep and cattle in various stages of mating frenzy, Dionysiac revel and stampede. The weather effects are elaborate and the final scene, in which the heroine is transformed into a laurel tree, however vividly depicted in the score (and by the voice), is not likely to persuade the viewer. All is confusion unless you ignore the stage for the score.

The best performances of Daphne (as of Friedenstag, Aegyptische Helena, even Salome and Capriccio) tend to be orchestral concerts, as when, ten years ago, Simeon Bychkov and his WDR Symphony of Cologne brought Daphne to Carnegie Hall with Renée Fleming (did she ever sing the role apart from this run? I think not) and the godlike Johan Botha in the all but unsingable role of Apollo.

That was, I believe, New York’s last exposure to Daphne. It has never been staged by the Met; Elizabeth Futral did a nice job (with mediocre tenors and less than ideal dramaturgy) at the City Opera in 2004.

The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra bows to few in its abilities; its brasses glow serenely in Strauss’s impossible writing, its harps play arrow-shots as if indeed Apollo were directing them, and the moodier moments of the score, the glowering of the strings for the dead Leukippos and Daphne’s mourning, had the clarity on the Avery Fisher Hall stage that they are denied in an orchestra pit.

Franz Welser-Möst led a serene and expert performance. The Concert Choral of New York personified the frolicking and contrapuntal shepherds. This Daphne was, presumably, long in the planning before Welser-Möst departed his post at the Staatsoper in (rumor has it) very high dudgeon, and he has drawn a choice cast from the Vienna alumni. Diction was superb all night.

Daphne was interpreted by Regine Hangler, who enacted the bewildered adolescent nymph affectingly. Her simple, often folk-like vocal lines bloomed where a Strauss soprano should bloom, like luscious fruity berries of sound bursting at the end of wordy stalks, but there was an occasional gasping for breath, notably in the final wordless vocalise of her be-tree-ing. First night jitters or perhaps insufficient support by her conductor? (The tenors suffered similar discordances.)

If there was one thing Strauss hated more than a tenor, it was two tenors, and Daphne (like Aegyptische Helena) suffers this affliction. When Botha sang the role, I never thought I’d hear Apollo truly sung and I was flabbergasted accordingly. Andreas Schager, who sings all the big Wagner roles back in Vienna, sang Apollo with lithe sound and elegant phrasing, but there were blips and bobbles and straining for top notes.

Wagner is really much gentler on his singers than Strauss, and there is no place to take cover. Still, if I hadn’t once heard it sung flawlessly, I’d account Schager’s a first-rate performance. Norbert Ernst had an easier time with the mortal but still stentorian Leukippos, Daphne’s unfortunate mortal boyfriend. He had room to glide and nothing too high to surmount.

Estonian bass Ain Anger sang Peneios graciously but Nancy Maultsby, as Gaea, rasped for attention, her earth-mother depths only intermittently effective. Two of the liveliest brief roles in all opera are Daphne’s maids (fishermen’s daughters have maids? Two maids? Two Wagnerian soprano maids?), brilliant and flavorful parts, who flirt with Leukippos and sing, with him, the equivalent of a pas de trois in some grand ballet. They were captivatingly performed by Lauren Snouffer and Anya Matanovic.

Photo: Stephanie Berger