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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Liebe der Danae
Danae - Krassimira Stoyanova
Jupiter - Tomasz Konieczny
Merkur - Norbert Ernst
Pollux - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Xanthe - Regine Hangler
Midas - Gerhard Siegel
Semele - Maria Celeng
Europe - Olga Bezsmertna
Alkmene - Michaela Selinger
Leda - Jennifer Johnston
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Franz Welser-Möst
Director - Alvis Hermanis
Costumes - Juozas Stakevičius
rec. live, Salzburg Festival August 2016
Picture NTSC 16:9
Sound PCM Stereo
Subtitles English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean
Region Code D (worldwide)
EUROARTS 4297028 [2 DVDs: 160 mins]

Strauss’s penultimate opera is probably most famous for the story of its premiere. Die Liebe der Danae was intended to receive its first performance at Salzburg in August 1944, and was in full rehearsal, but after the plot of 20 July to assassinate Hitler was foiled, Goebbels declared “total war”. This included the closing of all theatres in the Reich, so the performance could not take place. As the performance had been intended to celebrate Strauss’s 80th birthday, Goebbels allowed a dress rehearsal to take place, which was attended by Strauss and an invited audience under Clemens Kraus. The first public performance did not take place until 1952, after Strauss’s death, also at Salzburg and also under Kraus.

The plot had been outlined by Hoffmannsthal as early as 1920, but it was shelved and Strauss turned to it only in 1937, eight years after Hoffmannsthal’s death, giving the task of turning it into a libretto to Josef Gregor. The opera has never managed to gain a secure foothold in the repertoire; performances and recordings have been rare events, so this run of performances in 2016 at the festival, for which Strauss wrote it, were eagerly awaited by committed lovers of the composer.

Despite a cast in which only the soprano could be remotely called a “big” name, musically, this run of performances did considerable justice to the opera. Krassimira Stoyanova sings the long and difficult role of Danae very well. She does not, perhaps, possess the ecstatic purity of the truly great Strauss voices (Gundula Janowitz or Lisa della Casa, for example), but she is always musical in her phrasing and accurate in her intonation. There is not, perhaps, the sort of verbal colouring and detail, which would help enliven some of the longer monologues and duets (but, then, in all honesty, neither Janowitz or della Casa really supplied that), but it would difficult to think of anyone singing now, who would have done a notably better job. Tomasz Konieczny’s Jupiter is very fine. The tone is free and focussed throughout with a solid line. It does not have the darker bass-baritone timbre that Hans Hotter (the 1944 creator of the role) would have brought to it, and which, it could be argued, would be more in character for an older, almost world-weary god, who is taking his leave of his wild-oats-sowing youth, but I found nothing to complain about at any point in his performance, and he does not tire even in the third act. For once, Strauss got over his aversion to the tenor voice (or was it really the tenor personality?) and provided it with a leading role in the opera. Gerhard Siegel is a tenor in the mould (both vocally and, unfortunately, physically) of Ben Heppner and Johan Botha and matches the other two principles in his performance of Midas. Though his voice could not be described as beautiful, it is clear and penetrating with a genuinely tenorial timbre - this is no pushed-up baritone - and good use of text. My only slight criticism is that his pitching is not always spot on, though never sufficiently so to be disturbing. Norbert Ernst makes an excellent Merkur, singing the comparatively short role with real character, as does Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Pollux.

The quartet of Jupiter’s previous lovers is excellent. Franz Welser-Möst, who was given such an unjustified hard time by English critics, when he led the LPO in the first half of the 1990s, conducts admirably. There is both clarity and passion in his handling of the greatest of all Strauss orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic.

Life is never simple, though, and to counterbalance the excellence of the musical side is the mediocrity of Alvis Hermanis’s production. This was pretty well universally disliked when premiered, and I certainly don’t feel inclined to swim against the tide. The permanent set seems to be a drained inter-war municipal swimming bath with its white, square tiles. A sense of luxury and place (Syria, not Ancient Greece) is given by the use of a huge number of oriental carpets and the costumes of the non-principal singers. These are stereotype Middle Eastern, along the lines of Dulac’s illustrations for the Thousand and One Nights, their most memorable feature being the huge, gaudy turbans. Being charitable, I might say that these would have been fine in a production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri; in a less charitable mood that they are only fit for a provincial Christmas Aladdin. No doubt the costumes were very expensive, but that only brings to mind Dolly Parton’s immortal line “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” The huge fake elephant and the real donkey merely underline the production’s triviality. Despite the opera being subtitled by Strauss “A cheerful mythology”, it does contain serious ideas about maturity, valediction and the foolishness of putting wealth at the centre of life, but none of these gets so much as a look in. Nor does Hermanis seem to have given any sort of real direction to either soloists or chorus.

Technically, the issue is first rate. Sound and picture are of the highest quality and the choice of shots and images by “video designer” Ineta Sipunova is excellent.

So I find myself in the only-too-common position of having to praise the musical side of an issue whilst bemoaning the visual one. The relative balance one puts on these aspects is a purely personal decision. For me, the musical side is paramount, so I am very pleased to have this issue - though I will be playing it through the hi-fi with the television off.

Paul Steinson


 

 




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