Richard Strauss: Daphne (1938) REVISED

Opera in one act. Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

This is a change, a late Strauss bucolic music drama in one act. I seem to have fallen under a sort of Straussian spell. Written to be performed with Friedenstag, the opera has a completely contrasting tone and is usually performed separately. Like Salome and Elektra before her, Daphne provided Strauss with yet another subject for one of his single tableau opera “movies” (my words). This recording was conducted by Karl Bohm, to whom the score was dedicated which is an interesting bit of trivia.

Link to YouTube Video at the end of the post. 

PLOT: Ancient Greece. The daughter of the fisherman Peneios (bass) and Gaea (contralto), Daphne (soprano) is a chaste girl who loves nature (especially trees) and has no interest in human romance in spite of the fact that childhood friend Leukippos (lyric tenor) loves her. A stranger herdsman tells Daphne that she will soon be united with the sun, but he gets romantic and she runs away, meanwhile Leukippos dresses up in the dress Daphne was to wear for the festival of Dionysos and dances with Daphne who thinks he is a woman but the stranger reveals the trick and Daphne declares that both men are deceiving her so the strange reveals himself as Apollo (dramatic tenor) and shoots Leukippos with an arrow asking Zeus to transform Daphne into a tree so she can have peace. She is transformed. The end.

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The prelude * consists of two parts: a two-minute nature tune in the woodwinds followed by brass and a brief and relatively mild storm. This second part haunts the next few minutes or so of the opera: Four shepherds talk about the festival of Dionysus, when all, both human and animal, find their mates, to a rather melodic whirlwind. After more stormy stuff the male chorus has a nice, distant, melodic bit. This opening sets up the bucolic and autumnal nature of the score. 

6: Leb wohl, du Tag Daphne’s arrival and hymn to nature ** the climax of which is one of the finest late-Strauss soprano arias.

15: Ja, ich war der Baum Leukippos arrives and the two of them discuss trees, their childhood, and their relationship in general, leading to a nice arioso from him *. They go about melodically for some while until he makes to kiss her, which her virginal innocence causes a strong rejection, leading to him feeling dejected and Daphne as though she has lost a friend.

20: Daphne! Daphne’s mother Gaea arrives and sings some of the lowest music ever written for a woman (even down to an Eb3!) *. They discuss how Daphne must one day turn to romantic love, but she is having none of it. Gaea warns her daughter that the gods will one day put her in her place. 

27: Ei, so fliegt sie vorbei Two girls arrive  with a dress for Daphne for the festival (which she rejects) to go to the Dionysian rites. They move on to Leukippos, who decides to wear the dress himself almost as a half-spiteful joke/half-fetish attempt to recapture something of Daphne as the two soprano maidens sing enchantingly that they are actually fairies and that by wearing the dress, Leukippos can win Daphne **.

30: Seid ihr urn mich There is a noble change in the music *** as Daphne’s father Peneios arrives and discusses with the men (and Gaea) that he believes the gods (specifically Apollo) are going to come to earth, also the Daphne refusing to date issue. The music builds up to a climax over a four minute period.

34: Ich grusse dich The mysterious stranger arrives ** and introduces himself. Unlike Leukippos, who is more of a boyish lyrical tenor, Apollo’s music is strictly heroic and Wagnerian.

39: Was seh ich? After Peneios and Gaea go off to prep Daphne he gets something a little more lyrical **. Daphne arrives and they go about a slightly bizarre duet in which he calls her sister and she eventually calls him brother.

46: Wie best du gewaltig Apollo explodes on her ** leading to the kiss, a rather longish patch of orchestral interluding as the male chorus returns in the distance singing about Dionysos and Aphrodite. Apollo’s response before Daphne runs off includes some worthwhile high notes.

53: Alluberall bluht Dionysos Peneios returns and the festival begins ** and we get something close to Elektra’s dance. The dancing continues for a while.

59: Furchtbare Schmach dem Gotte! Gaea tells Daphne to drink (gets a negative response). After more dance music, and Daphne dancing with the in-transvesti Leukippos wearing her dress, Apollo gets angry ** and there is a great storm, or at least thunder, which ends the celebration.

61: Zu dir nun, Knabe Apollo and Leukippos confront each other, this mostly consists of an aria passage for the latter ***. Daphne accuses the stranger of deceiving her.

63: Jeden heiligen Morgen Apollo’s response to Daphne’s accusations is gorgeous as he reveals his true identity ***. Apollo leaves with Leukippos shot by an arrow, dying. Daphne comforts him to big stormy music.

68: Daphne…Gespielin Leukippos’ dying farewell to Daphne ***. Scary brass follows.

69: Unheilvolle Daphne From this point on the opera consists of two long solos for Daphne ** and Apollo followed by Daphne’s transformation scene which consists entirely of yet another solo for Daphne accompanied by the orchestra as she is transformed into a tree. This goes on for some 25 minutes before the opera comes to a close. Daphne’s first solo consists of music that most people will recognize as the standard but sweet Strauss soprano music, yet full of appropriate turbulence coming in from the orchestra. She acknowledges her guilt in the death of Leukippos, and prays for him to become one with the flowers. 

77: Was erblicke ich? Apollo feels really contrite for what he as done to Leukippos and so he calls upon Zeus to transform Daphne into one of the trees she loves so much **.

84: Ich komme..,Ich komme The beginning of the transformation scene **, crash bang, meditative quiet and muted horns as Daphne unites herself with the earth.

89: The second half of the transformation scene ***, Daphne is mostly silent as she becomes a tree and the orchestra totally takes over to some lovely melodies and fading high strings as Daphne has one last go at wordless coloratura.

COMMENTS:

Daphne is the most conservative of Strauss’ late operas in terms of the traditional nature of its music, closer to his Oboe and Second Horn concertos of the 1940s, although falling closer to the Romantic than Classical or Neoclassical vein. There are traces and reminders of earlier Strauss works particularly Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra, but the score never tries to be atonal or overtly-modern like Die aegyptische Helene or Die Liebe Der Danae. It is probably the closest thing so late in musical history (late-1930s) to a return to mostly late 19th century concepts, which may have been why Strauss’ wife preferred Daphne to all his other operas. The story, such as it is, is basically an uncomplicated love-quadrilateral between Daphne, nature (particularly trees), Leukippos, and Apollo in which neither of the two males ever really has a chance. There are some bizarre elements such as why does Leukippos put on Daphne’s dress for the rites when she rejects the dress and how does she not immediately recognize that it is him, wearing her own dress, when they are dancing?  Apart from the stormy interludes and when the two tenors try to get amorous with Daphne the music is almost invariably calm and placid until the party starts. It was somewhat hard to figure out which star-ratings to give here because the music is mostly of only two kinds, calm and placid or stormy and turbulant. What the opera has most going for it is that it is a perfectly scored work. Although the last forty minutes are mostly devoid of action, and by the end Strauss is up to parodying himself (that horn ornament which is so obviously Strauss, like a signature), even if the score lacks melodic originality, it does have an immense charm which is undeniable. What is more, both the composer and his wife had a particular fondness for this score, based on the same material as the first opera ever written, Peri’s Dafne of 1597. There isn’t much else to say, A-.

SOURCE: 

Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Strauss: A Critical Guide. Grange Books: London, 1995. Ch.13, p.201-210. 

 

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