Richard Strauss stands alongside Puccini as one of the most frequently performed opera composers of the 20th century. However, that is where the similarities between the two composers end. While Puccini was bringing opera to the people with the verismo style, Strauss took opera back to its roots with largely mythological and biblical themes, as in the operas of the 17th century and the bourgeois focus of the 18th. This approach produced some of the most exciting and revolutionary operas of the early 20th century, most notably Salome and Elektra, which had a lasting influence and a solid place in the repertoire. However, the same cannot be said for the works which came in Strauss’ middle period, and many consider that he never again achieved the originality of Elektra or the success of Rosenkavalier.

Marjorie Owens (Daphne) © Matthias Creutziger
Marjorie Owens (Daphne)
© Matthias Creutziger

Daphne (1938) falls snugly in the “dull” period of Strauss’ output, but there are in fact many things to commend the work. It’s a short and succinct operatic utterance, and at a mere 90 minutes in length it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Much of it shows Strauss at his most orchestrally sumptuous, and his utter mastery of writing for the voice with orchestra, giving both full expression without one being dominated by the other. Yes, there are some moments which fall flat either musically or dramatically, and there’s no escaping the fact that Joseph Gregor was a poor librettist (a fact which Strauss himself noted), but these drawbacks are balanced by many moments of pure beauty.

As a result of its imperfections, Daphne needs a good production to overcome them and lend it a golden thread. Sadly Torsten Fischer’s production for Dresden’s Semperoper doesn’t achieve this. The production opens with a projection of a quote from Sophie Scholl, a member of the White Rose group, a non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany. Fischer’s Daphne is in fact a representation of Scholl herself, standing against the Nazis, led here by Apollo. But rather than illuminating the difficult original, this superimposed story only obscures, making the action on stage rather difficult to follow. Plus, compared to Scholl, Daphne is a rather weak character, often saying (singing) and doing nothing to influence her own fate, a far cry from the outspoken Scholl who continued to speak defiantly in the courtroom and on into her execution.

Representing Daphne/Scholl on stage was Marjorie Owens, a member of the Semperoper’s ensemble. It was clear that this production was not designed with her in mind, with the costume making the normally glamorous singer look more like a frumpy housewife than a defiant 22-year-old. Her stunning voice and excellent technique made light work of the role, but there were none of the colours which Owens brings to so much of the other roles she sings, and the result was rather monotone.

Georg Zeppenfeld gave a solid performance as Peneios, Daphne’s father, with gravitas and warmth in his voice, but lacking variety, while Lance Ryan’s Apollo was beautifully sung, imbuing his powerful voice with colours and lyricism throughout. Despite being the smallest roles in the opera, Romy Petrick and Christina Bock provided one of the musical highlights of the evening as the two maids, with a beautifully blended sweetness of sound and a soaring lyricism which was captivating. It was, however, Christina Mayer as Gaea who really blew me away. Her warm, projecting contralto voice is something so rare and so hauntingly beautiful and she always uses it to express the drama; when she sings you are forced to listen.

Ladislav Elgr (Leukippos) and Marjorie Owens (Daphne) © Matthias Creutziger
Ladislav Elgr (Leukippos) and Marjorie Owens (Daphne)
© Matthias Creutziger

The Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, led by Omer Meir Wellber, are really on home turf in this opera. They premiered this opera here in 1938, and while those players are long since retired, the proud Strauss tradition in Dresden continues to this day, with one of the world’s most celebrated Strauss conductors, Christian Thielemann, as Chief Conductor. Their performance tonight was as polished as ever, and there were some truly exquisite moments, especially from the woodwinds, bringing out all the pastoral colours of this opera which were missing in the staging. There were times where I wanted more variety in the string playing, and for the whole orchestra to really bring something to the drama, rather than just accompanying, but this was nonetheless very fine playing.

Overall this performance left me unmoved. The cryptic staging hinders comprehension and in spite of some very good individual performances, there were too many moments where the narrative thread was severed and I found my mind wondering. If you’re a diehard Strauss fan, then it’s definitely worth a visit, but I’d recommend reading the programme first if you expect to understand anything of the production.

**111