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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Daphne Ė bucolic tragedy in one act (1937)
Libretto by Joseph Gregor
Daphne (soprano) Ė Renee Fleming
Apollo (tenor) Ė Johan Botha
Leukippos (tenor) Ė Michael Schade
Peneios (bass) Ė Kwanchul Youn
Gaea (mezzo) Ė Anna Larsson
Men of the WDR Radio Chorus
WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
Recorded in the Cologne Philharmonie, 28 Feb-12 March 2005. DDD
DECCA 475 6926 [72í35 + 27í08]

Even Straussís staunchest supporters have had trouble with Daphne. That doyen of the composerís biographers, Norman Del Mar, ends his typically illuminating chapter on it with these words: ĎThere are undoubtedly faults and uneven qualities which have to be considered ... yet Daphne contains passages which are the quintessence of what the ageing Strauss had to say, of that rich mellifluousness which found its ultimate expression in the Four Last Songsí. Gregorís libretto often shoulders much of the blame, and the work has had a hard life in the opera house, not having the pulling power of the other one-acters Salome and Elektra, whilst being difficult to programme with anything else. It does however, as Del Mar indicates, have many glorious moments; the famous final Transformation Scene is as soaring and memorable as the Rosenkavalier Trio or Elektraís Recognition Scene and, like them, is often performed out of context. Maybe thatís why itís the ideal gramophone opera, having done well on disc over the years.

This new high profile studio version from Decca, one of the greatest of all recorded opera stables, has a lot going for it. Firstly, itís conducted by Semyon Bychkov, whose long affinity with Straussís music shows at every turn. His Avie recording of Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen with this very orchestra was one of my discs of the year a while back [review] and once again they respond magnificently to Bychkovís supple beat. As in the previous disc, he and his band are alive to all Straussís teeming detail without losing the sumptuous sweep and sheen that his music so needs. With veteran producer Michael Haas in charge of proceedings, you are guaranteed a true Straussian aural experience.

The obvious selling point vocally is the title assumption by Renée Fleming and this particular part might have been written for her. Her creamy, expansive tone is ideally suited to so many of Straussís lines and she makes light of most of the taxing technical demands of the part. Some of the cruelly high tessitura does stretch even her considerable capabilities - she is no match, in this respect, for Hilde Gueden on Böhmís classic 1964 set - but one always feels she is in control. Her way with the text and acting ability are second to none, easily matching her most illustrious predecessors, Lucia Popp included.

The tenors tend to play second fiddle to Daphne, but both are good here. Johan Botha gets the principal role of Apollo and his strong, virile tone is well suited to the part. He also has some high-lying passages and copes easily, top Bs and B flats proving no problem. Michael Schadeís lovelorn Leukippos characterises well, but is a shade light for my taste, and certainly no match for the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich for Böhm. The other women cope well with parts that seem basically underwritten, but I do like the wonderfully rich, chesty tone of Anne Larssonís Gaea.

Having mentioned the Böhm as severe competition for this new set, itís also worth drawing attention to a well received recording from 1989 conducted by Haitink (EMI). I havenít been able to sample it, but by all accounts itís worth seeking out. Böhmís set is cheaper; he does make a few cuts (as he often did in Strauss operas) but theyíre tolerable Ė some might even say they do the piece a favour. The sound has also worn very well, though inevitably the rich, full Decca experience is very persuasive in this music. I feel that this aspect, allied to Bychkovís conducting and Flemingís intelligent portrayal, are this new setís chief assets. Whether they are enough to carry the day in the face of a classic set from a legendary Straussian, who has at his disposal a truly starry cast (Gueden, Wunderlich, King, Schöffler) is the question. You may well have to try before you buy on this one.

Tony Haywood



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