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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Liebe der Danae (1952) [176:10]
Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano) – Danae: Tomasz Konieczny (baritone) – Jupiter; Gerhard Siegel (tenor) – Midas; Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor) – Pollux; Norbert Ernst (tenor) – Mercury; Regine Hangler (soprano) – Xanthe; Mária Celeng (soprano) – Semele; Olga Bezsmertna (soprano) – Europa; Michaela Selinger (mezzo-soprano) – Alkmene; Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano) – Leda; Pavel Kolgatin and Andri Früh (tenors), Ryan Speedo Green and Jongmin Park (basses) – Four Kings; Vienna State Opera Concert Choir, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst
rec. Salzburg Festival, August 2016
EUROARTS Blu-ray 4297024 [176 mins]

The “cheerful mythology” Die Liebe der Danae is probably the opera born under the most unlucky circumstances of all time. Written during the Second World War, it was scheduled for performance at the Salzburg Festival in 1944. After the dress rehearsal it was abandoned following the attempted assassination of Hitler and the cancellation of the Festival, and it did not make it onto the stage until after the composer’s death. That 1952 première was not made available on CD until 1994, but for a considerable number of years it was the sole representation of the score on disc. The performance, however, was not at all satisfactory, for a number of reasons. Clemens Krauss, the conductor and close friend of the composer, allowed a number of cuts to be made in the score, and transposed sections of the music to accommodate the singers. This version seems to have been the standard adopted on the rare occasions that the opera was revived; it was only in 2004 that a commercial recording emerged which gave us the complete score as Strauss originally envisioned it. That cpo set, based on live performances at the enterprising Kiel opera conducted by Ulrich Windfuhr, remains available; but two other modern revivals, conducted by Leon Botstein on Telarc and Elgar Howarth on a live performance from Garsington Opera, appear to have succumbed to the deletions axe. And while the latter seems to be totally unobtainable, second-hand copies of the former are only listed on Amazon at an extraordinarily inflated price.

There is, however, one other alternative, a 1980 BBC radio broadcast conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, which appears to have surfaced in a pirated version on the Gala label. This manages to cram the whole opera onto two discs with a total duration some seven minutes shorter than Windfuhr’s reading, presumably thanks to Mackerras’s somewhat brisker speeds. But the Mackerras version is nonetheless the best-cast of the audio recordings of the opera; Arlene Saunders is more suited to the title role than Manuela Uhl on the cpo set, and Norman Bailey as Jupiter, a real Wagnerian heroic baritone in his prime, is immeasurably superior to Windfuhr’s Franz Grundheber. Plans at various times to record the opera with either Deborah Voigt or Renée Fleming in the title role, possibly with Bryn Terfel as Jupiter or Wolfgang Sawallisch as conductor, all seem to have fallen by the wayside.

The opera itself has been frequently damned with faint praise, widely described as a recycling of various ideas and themes which Strauss himself had employed to greater effect in his earlier operas. But Strauss in his later works was always particularly inspired by archetypical themes of Greek mythology, and in the first two Acts of Danae there are passages which can well stand comparison with scenes in Daphne, Aegyptiche Helena, Ariadne auf Naxos and even Die Frau ohne Schatten. Once the initial scene between Pollux and his chorus of tiresome creditors, a pale imitation of Herod’s Jews in Salome, is out of the way, we are immediately presented with a ravishing duet between Danae and her maid, and the machinations of the divinities are evoked with all the grandeur that we find in similar situations in Daphne. Moreover, some even of the intentionally light-hearted scenes, like the quartet of welcome to Danae on her wedding night with its echoes of the seduction in Die Frau, have a positive charm which rises well above the workaday reworking of old ideas. Indeed there is much to be said for regarding Danae not as a compendium of previous music, but as a summation of Strauss’s achievements in the world of opera—and not merely in his earlier works for the stage.

And then, from the stunningly beautiful interlude in the centre of the final Act, the music becomes positively transcendent. Danae’s aria singing of her happiness is succeeded by her extended duet with Jupiter leading to the latter’s final gesture of renunciation. And this renunciation is not, like that of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, attended with a sense of purposed reconciliation; it is hard-won, and resisted every step of the way. Even in the glorious orchestral apotheosis at the end, one feels Jupiter’s sense of regret and bitterness. This is a very great scene indeed, worthy to rank with the very best of Strauss; Franz Welser-Möst is surely correct when he is quoted in the booklet which comes with this disc to identify an autobiographical element in the composer’s farewell to all that he held dear. A parallel inevitably springs to mind in Shakespeare’s speech given to Prospero in The Tempest, a real pang of parting and abnegation.

The singing in this performance is generally of a very high quality, with even Jupiter’s four discarded and quarrelsome queens cast from strength. The duet between Krassimira Stoyanova and Regine Hangler in the second scene is an absolute delight to hear, and Tomasz Konieczny as Jupiter sounds unusually virile—as indeed he should—rather than a superannuated Wotan giving up the delights of the flesh purely and simply because he has grown too old for them. The only weak link in the cast is Gerhard Siegel in the frankly impossible role of Midas with its high heldentenor-like tessitura; he has the notes in his voice (just) and manages to ride the orchestral tumult for most of the time, but he lacks the glamour of both tone and demeanour which would make comprehensible the choice which Daphne makes for a life of poverty with him rather than the glory of luxurious divinity with Jupiter. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Pollux is tolerable as Danae’s put-upon father in the generally miserable music he has to sing. Norbert Ernst as Mercury has more character, but then Strauss has given him something more interesting to do.

But the two principal singers who must carry the burden of the opera are Danae and Jupiter; and here Stoyanova and Konieczny are excellent both in their delivery and interaction with each other. Time after time in the final scene she spins out delicate high notes which ideally encapsulate her character, with none of the sense of effort that can so often afflict Straussian sopranos. And he in turn may lack the ultimately heroic tone of a Bailey or a Schoeffler (who sang at the première), but he compensates for that by rock-steady delivery and heartfelt interpretation of the text. Indeed, when I want to hear this final scene again, it is to this DVD—rather than any of the CD versions—that I will turn. There again, if the BBC still have their original tapes of the Mackerras broadcast, Saunders and Bailey would constitute formidable rivals in decent sound.

There was an earlier video version of the opera on an Arthaus DVD, again with Manuela Uhl in the title role but this time conducted by Andrew Litton from the Deutsche Oper Berlin. That recording was reviewed with considerable enthusiasm for this site by Simon Thompson, but I cannot say that his description of the staging—it featured an upside-down grand piano hanging from the flies throughout all three Acts—inspires me with much confidence. This new Euroarts release returns the opera to the Salzburg Festival where it all started; although the evidence of Regietheater is evident in Alvis Hermanis’s production the staging at least retains the sense of spectacle which is essential to the mythological plot. Some other critics have indeed criticised the production for overdoing the spectacle, but in an opera which revolves around the theme of the renunciation of conspicuous luxury, it is hard to fault the fact that the latter is so gaudily represented. And the unit set, with its forbidding tiles looking like a utilitarian bathroom where devoid of ornament (and a fitting symbol of poverty in the final Act), is transformed by the subtly changing lighting with carpet designs and art nouveau motifs moving around like a sort of animated William Morris wallpaper. The costumes, with their vaguely Turkish feel, make a suitable sort of equivalent for a Greek myth set in Asia Minor. Even the appearance of a gaudy and gigantic model elephant which makes its presence felt in the scenes featuring Jupiter is suitably matched with a well-behaved but definitely living donkey which is led across the stage twice during the Third Act. The extensive booklet notes clearly show that the production team have thought long and hard about the symbolism of the opera, and I would rather have the occasional moments of vulgarity than any number of pianos, suspended or otherwise.

Those who do not know this opera, or do not know it well enough, should certainly take advantage of this recording to encounter some spectacularly good music, generally well (and sometimes exceptionally well) sung and excellently played by the Vienna Phil under the reliable Franz Welser-Möst.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Paul Steinson



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