Daphne – Bucolic tragedy in one Act to a libretto by Joseph Gregor [sung in German with German and English surtitles]
Peneios – René Pape
Gaea – Anna Kissjudit
Daphne – Vera-Lotte Boecker
Leukippos – Linard Vrielink
Apollo – Pavel Černoch
Four Shepherds – Arttu Kataja, Florian Hoffmann, Roman Trekel & Friedrich Hamel
Two Maids – Evelin Novak & Natalia Skrycka
Romeo Castellucci – Director, Set, Costume & Lighting
Evelin Facchini – Choreography
Piersandra Di Matteo & Jana Beckmann – Dramaturgy
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 23 February, 2023
Venue: Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin
Strauss’s Daphne (1938) was written on the brink of the composer’s ‘Indian summer’, that succession of late works widely admired for the autumnal glow that radiates from within their music. In that ordering, this opera would then stem from the end of his compositional summer, basking in the sun-drenched warmth of the Classical Greek culture and values he had long endorsed during his career, in which Daphne appropriately laments the close of the day and yearns for the sun to remain suspended in the sky and to be close to nature.
Seemingly in some sort of response to the climate crisis of the planet today, Romeo Castellucci strikingly disavows any nostalgic retreat into an irretrievable Arcadian past but sets the drama within a wintry waste land. An enlarged facsimile of the frontispiece of T. S. Eliot’s eponymous poem makes that point clunkily clear by descending into the scene near the end, but it could have been dispensed with as the setting already makes the frozen apocalypse poetically comprehensible – in the bleak landscape on the stage, there is merely one bare, struggling sapling representing the tree that so enthrals Daphne. Otherwise only a sparse line of leafless trees in silhouette wilt in the background, and two fumes of black smoke belch ominously.
A continuous snowfall for much of the opera, from the beginning, stresses the point – almost to excess – until it tellingly stops at the point that Leukippos is bloodily killed in jealous rage by Apollo for his amorous attentions to Daphne. In keeping with one of the salient themes of Classical myth, it seems as though this is a sacrificial death that may appease whatever forces have inflicted this endless frozen waste upon the world – and Daphne had also been seen being prepared for sacrifice on an altar-like plinth during the feast of Dionysos that is celebrated. But the snow returns, Daphne uproots the tree, and eventually disappears through the hole in the earth which is left but is not herself transformed or renewed into any another plant to replace it. There is no redemption or salvation in this deracinated, wizened world, and the few brief incursions of fiery light or distant sunset amidst the white and grey look more threatening and dangerous, than life-enhancing, Or, as the snowflakes are occasionally illumined by gleaming light, is there perhaps even an ironic reference to the golden shower of the myth of Danae, which was the subject of Strauss’s opera and who, unlike Daphne, doesn’t reject the advances of a god and so is emotionally ignited by the flames of erotic love?
A warming glow comes from within the musical performance instead, the score more chamber-like than most of Strauss’s operas, and Thomas Guggeis and the Staatskapelle Berlin are careful to distinguish a translucent lustre and clarity in the texture, rather than creating a typically sumptuous, saccharine sonority. The strange sequence of chords which follow Apollo’s kissing Daphne are mysteriously luminous, recalling the similar moment in Parsifal as the eponymous character dwells on Kundry’s embrace before he cries out in disgust. The orchestra’s delicate, dusk-like shadings of the work’s concluding transformation scene is masterly in sustaining an expressive timbre within a soft dynamic range, especially the horn’s tantalisingly contained melody which shines through like a golden thread, revealing this coda as foreshadowing the Moonlight Music at the end of Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio.
Vera-Lotte Boecker sings radiantly as Daphne, matching the crisp, fresh delivery of the solo oboe which gives out the recurring motif that is associated with her. Her first monologue seems to mimic the instrument’s reediness with an inward ardour and reflectiveness at first, before blossoming seamlessly into a brighter, long-breathed climax, though the solo violin has a couple of scratchy moments along the way. Linard Vrielink often soars as Leukippos, Daphne’s childhood friend and would-be lover, lending the role a musically more expansive aspect than the character’s capricious nature might suggest, and inciting compassion for his tragic fate. Pavel Černoch attains a heroic depth as Apollo, if perhaps somewhat raw in tone, suggesting the god’s devious scheme to rid himself of his rival for Daphne’s love. Anna Kissjudit is a vocally smoky, elusive Gaea, creating a rather mysterious authority to her account of Daphne’s mother, whilst her father, Peneios is projected with more straightforward, if majestic, discipline by René Pape.
If this production unexpectedly inverts the overall ripe, balmy atmosphere of Strauss’s Greek ‘bucolic tragedy’, it does embody its own visual poetry with consistency. But more than that, it makes for a provocative interpretation of the opera which constructively provides a comment upon the disaster that looms if the climate crisis is not tackled with sufficient urgency.