As we know, small can be beautiful: and smaller works can often thrive outside the great opera houses. Grimeborn presented London with a rare chance to see Strauss’ short opera Daphne, sung for one night only to a piano accompaniment from the tireless fingers of Marta Lopez. Opera At Home’s exciting cast included the fabulous Justine Viani in the title role, and a true contralto Gaea from thrillingly dark-voiced Violetta Gawara. We were in for a treat: but unfortunately, an overly gimmicky production from director and conductor José Manuel Gandia tendered to hamper any natural drama on stage.

Justine Viani (Daphne) © Robert Workman
Justine Viani (Daphne)
© Robert Workman

Daphne comes from one of the most controversial (read: embarrassing) periods of Strauss’ life, when he continued to compose under the Nazi regime, rather than taking a principled stand (or moving away from Germany). Gandia took Strauss’ discomfiting collaboration as the starting point for his production concept, setting it in the 1930s and including on stage a dispossessed Jewish family (Ros Stern, Jaymes Aaron and assistant director Henriëtte Rietveld), intended to represent the relations of Strauss’ stepdaughter Alice who all died in concentration camps (Strauss saved Alice), though you needed to be psychic to work out that connection in the absence of a programme note. The Jews were badly treated every now and again by the Shepherds, dressed in sub-military greatcoats, and the Maids, wearing sharp skirts and vintage tights. Leukippos, for some reason not implicated in the general anti-semitism, became a village idiot in a tattered straw hat; the immortals were in evening dress (Daphne and her mother Gaea in Grecian silk gowns, Peneios in a dapper red hat) which seemed to vaguely separate them, yet they interacted in a friendly manner with the proto-Nazis, so maybe they weren’t exonerated: it wasn’t clear. Meanwhile, Apollo’s disguise – a greatcoat, but worn tramp-like over a bare chest – didn’t place him clearly in either realm. As the scenes unfolded, the Jewish family would appear, be insulted, then disappear. Why was a mystery, particularly as all was sung in German, with only brief captions projected on a wall. Although Gregor's libretto is not celebrated, it seemed a missed opportunity not to provide an interested new audience with a full translation, given Daphne’s rareness. 

Victoria Johnstone’s bland, basic design (a leather Chesterfield and three columns of green material for trees) didn’t serve the Arcola or the production well. At its final climax, the Jewish family lay down beside the dead Leukippos, the first victims in a concentration camp suggested by barbed wire unwound so tortuously that it brought back wry memories of struggles with tangled Christmas tree lights. Daphne, often acknowledged as a symbol of Strauss’ creativity, was now a tree which had become part of that barbed wire fence, overlooking the camp mutely and uncomplainingly. As a symbol of Strauss’ political inactivity in the face of rising Nazism, that final scene was fair enough: but I am afraid that is an easy (and obvious) target to hit, however gauche the aim. Gandia’s preoccupations with Strauss didn’t capture the essence of Daphne as an opera.

John Upperton (Apollo) and Justine Viani (Daphne) © Robert Workman
John Upperton (Apollo) and Justine Viani (Daphne)
© Robert Workman

This came through far more articulately when Apollo (John Upperton) kissed Daphne: a moment at which Daphne is overwhelmed not by fear or horror, but by a profound, shattering sadness. The music, and Viani’s superb control of movement and gesture here, conveyed a truly heartbreaking betrayal of innocent trust: Daphne is not outraged, but profoundly disappointed by an encounter which proves the world – even the god Apollo himself – falls short of her expectations of purity and universal love. This is the real point of Daphne, the essence of her myth: the triumph of innocence in the face of lust. It is about a pointed, proud refusal to cooperate: not complacent acquiescence.  

Justine Viani gave a subtle and compelling performance as Daphne, harnessing the power of stillness to give her nymph supernatural poise. Her expressive face showing a sophisticated palette of emotions, lightened by sudden playfulness when she stamped a bare foot or swished her silk skirts in frustration. Viani showed strength and guts in her singing, achieving moments of liquid softness while smoothly incorporating a near-conversational sense of ease: Strauss’ music sounds designed for her, even if sometimes her soprano dominated the small space.

Welshman James Gower was a masterly Peneios, his warm-toned bass wonderfully supple and beautifully projected: look out, Terfel! Violetta Gawara, excitingly low-toned as Gaea, showed just how unusual a true contralto voice sounds: an ideal voice for Mother Earth, despite her unfortunately tendency to stare at the conductor. Two prettily-sung Maids from Milena Dobrzycka and Erika Madi Jones were nicely characterised. A rich, broad baritone from Dario Dugandzic and a sweet-toned Borja Gómez-Ferrer made for two successful Shepherds. Panos Ntourntoufis was gentle and delicately articulate as Leukippos, a finely sung account albeit not dramatically compelling, as was John Upperton’s Apollo, who had a nice sense of menace but never seemed godlike, his German sounding tepid at times, his voice occasionally reedy beside Viani’s richness.

**111