Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Liebe der Danae (1940)
Danae – Manuela Uhl (soprano)
Jupiter – Mark Delavan (bass)
Midas – Matthias Klink (tenor)
Mercury – Thomas Blondelle (tenor)
Pollux – Burkhard Ulrich (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Andrew Litton
rec. live, Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2011
Kirsten Harms (Stage Director)
Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.0; Picture: 16:9; Region code: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 580 [155:00 + 22:00 (bonus)]
The topic of Danae first came to Strauss’s attention in 1920 when Hofmannsthal suggested it as a possibility for collaboration, but it was put aside because Strauss was busy composing Intermezzo and because he was up to his eyes with running the Vienna Opera. He then returned to it in the late 1930s and finished it in 1940, stipulating that it should not be performed until after the end of the war. Clemens Krauss persuaded him to change his mind and allow it to appear in the 1944 Salzburg Festival as a celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday, but the July Bomb Plot intervened and that year’s festival was cancelled. In fact the opera lay unperformed until 1952, save a public dress rehearsal as part of the 1944 festival preparations.
Today it is one of Strauss’s least performed works, and it’s undoubtedly a problematic piece. It’s tempting to speculate what Strauss and Hofmannsthal might have made of it in comparison with the dramatically wobbly and slightly derivative piece which Strauss created with Joseph Gregor, his librettist. The story concerns Danae, the lover of Jupiter who descended to her in a shower of gold. She begins the opera obsessed with riches and longs to marry King Midas for his wealth, but as the opera progresses she realises the value of love over money and ends happily ensconced with Midas in blissful poverty. Conversely the opera charts the story of Jupiter who has clearly lost his touch with the ladies and is struggling to get over his rejection by Danae. Comic relief is provided by the appearance of Mercury and four of Jupiter’s former lovers – Semele, Alcmene, Europa and Leda – who mock him for his lack of amorous prowess. Strauss doesn’t seem to have made up his mind, however, as to whether the opera is a light entertainment or a serious treatise on the nature of love: he calls it a “Joyful Mythology in Three Acts”, not altogether helpfully. The serious and comic elements sit together a tad uncomfortably and the long final duet between Danae and Jupiter doesn’t quite stand up under the great weight that Strauss piles upon it. There’s also an argument that Strauss was rather too much in debt to other examples here: the weary Jupiter, past his best, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wotan, especially in Act 3 of Walküre, and Mercury is almost a carbon copy of Wagner’s Loge. Structurally speaking the work has problems too. I’ve mentioned the length of the final duet. The end of Act 1 is problematic too: Danae faints in Jupiter’s arms and the music just seems to collapse anticlimactically, as if seeking a base that it never quite finds. There are also plenty of places where Strauss seems to be nodding to his earlier achievements, most notably the love music of Rosenkavalier.
However, that’s not to say that Danae isn’t a worthy piece; quite the opposite, in fact. There is a huge amount to enjoy here. After all, it was written at the threshold of Strauss’s wonderful final years. Metamorphosen, Capriccio and the Four Last Songs were just around the corner, and traces of all three can be heard in some aspect of the work, most notably in the ravishing orchestration. The surging strings and throbbing winds that accompany Midas and Danae’s love music in Act 3 are just sensational and the final bars, where Danae looks forward ecstatically to Midas’ return, provide a thrilling full-stop. It is clear, furthermore, that Strauss had lost none of his skills as an orchestrator in preparing this work. Often the orchestra is called upon to produce ear-ravishing effects, such as the arrival of Jupiter in Act 1. The quicksilver instrumentation of the shower of gold in the same act harks back to the presentation of the rose in Rosenkavalier. The neo-classical string introduction to Act 2 is utterly charming, and the music for Jupiter’s four former lovers, who nearly always sing as a full quartet, allows Strauss to indulge his love of the female voice to its fullest extent.
All of this would be enough to justify exploring the work, and it’s exhilarating that the Deutsche Oper have paid the work the immense compliment of giving it a serious and worthy staging. In one of the additional bonus Behind-the-Scenes films the theatre’s Dramatic Adviser, when asked what the opera is about, remarks “you could say that the vultures are circling the Aegean”. The opening scene concerns a Greek ruler in massive debt who is having his belonging repossessed. Does any of this sound familiar?! It’s a neat touch that most of King Pollux’s artefacts which are being removed by the bailiffs are famous statues or paintings of Jupiter, often in the act of seducing a lover. The sets for the production aren’t especially spectacular and are often very plain, especially the bridal chamber of Act 2, but Kirsten Harms shows a great ability to direct singers as actors and to create convincing interaction out of Strauss’s sometimes unwieldy drama. The one constant image of the production, also visible on the DVD cover, is of an upside-down grand piano which hangs suspended over the action almost from start to finish. The reasons for this weren’t entirely clear to me, but it’s an arresting image nonetheless.
The singers treat this work very seriously and give it their all. Manuela Uhl’s soprano is dramatic and slightly brittle, missing some of the voluptuous nature of Danae’s music, but she holds nothing back and her identification with the role is very convincing. Even more so is the heroic tenor of Matthias Klink whose Midas achieves the feat of seeming vulnerable while remaining heroic. Mark Delavan is an outstanding Jupiter, rich and commanding yet with an air of faded glory and managing successfully to suggest that this god’s best days are behind him. Thomas Blondelle as Mercury and Burkhard Ulrich as Pollux both make the most of their smallish tenor roles and the quartet of mistresses sounds ravishing. The playing of the large orchestra is sensational from start to finish. I can’t imagine this score being given a better treatment, and it helps immeasurably that they are captured in surround sound so that the glories of Strauss’s orchestration come at you from all angles. Andrew Litton directs this score with the assurance of someone who has taken the time to get to know it well. Orchestra and singers respond to him with confidence and the result is outstanding.
Like their DVD of Rienzi, the Deutsche Oper has done a fantastic job of resurrecting a neglected work by a great composer and doing so triumphantly. Staging and musical values work on almost every front and they make this set well worth exploring. The work itself may not be perfect, but this DVD is the best argument for it that I could imagine. Fans of Strauss need not hesitate.
Deutsche Oper has done a fantastic job of resurrecting a neglected work by a great composer and doing so triumphantly. Fans of Strauss need not hesitate.