CAST: Daphne: Renee Fleming, Apollo: Johan Botha, Leukippos: Michael Schade, Peneios: Kwanchul Youn, Gaea: Anna Larson, First Shepherd: Eike Wilm Schulte, Second Shepherd: Cosmin Ifrim, Third Shepherd: Gregory Reinhart, Fourth Shepherd: Carsten Wittmoser, First Maid: Julia Kleiter, Second Maid: Twyla Robinson.
Herren des WDR Rundfunkchors
WDR Simphonieorchester, Köln
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
The adapted version of the myth of Daphne set to music by Richard Strauss is only one of many in the operatic history. The first opera about Daphne was actually the first opera ever written and it was composed by Jacopo Peri under the title Dafne in 1597 in an attempt to re-create classical Greek drama. Dafne survives only in a couple of fragments, but it is enough to prove the interest for one of the most famous myths that later enjoyed a wide success in music thanks to the efforts of Marco da Gagliano (La Dafne, 1608), Pier Francesco Cavalli (Gli amori di Apollo e Dafne, 1640), Giovanni Andrea Bontempi (Apollo und Dafne, 1672), Johann Joseph Fux (Dafne in Lauro) and finally Georg Friedrich Handel with his early cantata Apollo e Dafne (1709-1710).
Although Strauss’s Daphne is considered a minor work and it has been rarely performed on stage after its premiere in 1938, its creator has a high opinion of his opera. Strauss attended to the composition of Daphne between 1936 and 1937, when he was already in his seventies, proving once again his love for ancient Greece, an era that fascinated him from his youth, when he had the chance to visit the country, and that already inspired several of his works as Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die ägyptische Helena and will later inspire Die Liebe der Danae. The main problem was to find a librettist as his faithful collaborator Hugo von Hoffmannsthal had died in 1929 and Stefan Zweig had left Germany in 1934 to escape Nazi persecution, but Strauss finally turned to Joseph Gregor after Zweig’s suggestion.
Gregor wrote three librettos for Strauss: Friedenstag, Schweigsame Frau and our Daphne. Friedenstag and Daphne were planned to be performed as a double bill, but the project was abandoned when the scale of Daphne grew and the “bucolic tragedy” received its premiere at the Semperoper in Dresden on 15 October 1938 under the conduction of Karl Böhm, its dedicatee.
If there is a remarkable name in this recording of Daphne, this is that of Renée Fleming. The American soprano has not the voice that one might expect for the chaste and pure title role as her rich and creamy timbre is more suited to portray a more sensuous, earthly creature, but – this said – it is not to regret that she has decided to sing this role. Her understanding of Strauss’s music is natural and, if her vocalism is a little too far from Daphne, nonetheless she knows how to move in the flow of music and to give prominence to the melancholic hopes expressed by her heroine in Leb wohl, du Tag!, to characterize her with reluctance and charm while she sings with Leukippos and to endow her with an unusual but not completely inappropriate (considering the tragedy that is reaching its climax) in the last scene before the metamorphosis. In the vocalise at the end of the opera, at last, she is able to make immediately clear that this is really the last time that Daphne’s voice will be heard – an outcome that maybe would be more difficult to achieve with a more appropriate but less imposing voice.
The other singers are definitely fine performers, but no one of them can be favourably compared to Fleming as tenors Johan Botha (Apollo) and Michael Schade (Leukippos) lack a certain degree of variety (the former) and passion (the latter), although it must be recorded that Botha sings with more correctness. Kwanchul Youn as Peneios offers an authoritative performance, enriched with elegance and strength, but he too is a little cold if you closely follow the text. Anna Larson is a good Gaea and her short moment with Fleming is one of the best of the opera.
Semyon Bychkov’s conduction is far from being perfect, especially when you remember the performance of the dedicatee of the opera, Karl Böhm, recorded in 1964. The mythical Daphne has not lost its delicacy but has been unable to preserve its intensity and the tragic atmosphere is very difficult to guess. Few good ideas can be detected in the musical texture, but they fade as soon as they appear and if you do not know the story you may think that Strauss has written Daphne as a fairy tale and not as a ”bucolic tragedy”.