It took more than six decades, but Richard Strauss's "Daphne" (1938) finally received its Manhattan stage premiere Wednesday night when the New York City Opera mounted this "bucolic tragedy" at Lincoln Center.
Given that the opera is widely regarded as one of the composer's late masterpieces -- a radiant outpouring of music that is both lushly ecstatic and chastely serene -- such long neglect is surprising, particularly since there have been several recordings that have sold steadily. But "Daphne" is difficult -- not for the listener, who will delight in its beauty and composure, but for everybody else involved.
Since this is a German opera, let's adopt the present-day German aesthetic and give the stage director pride of place. In this setting of one of the most beloved of Greek myths, a way must be found to convince the audience that Apollo has transformed the young nymph Daphne into a tree, where she stands, sprouting limbs and singing wordlessly, as the curtain falls. In an animated film, this could be done easily, of course, but it is far more difficult onstage, with a real-life, not naturally deciduous soprano warbling coolly throughout the process.
Too, the role of Daphne is spectacularly challenging -- but if it sounds that way, all is lost. Throughout the opera (which lasts about 90 minutes, without intermission), Daphne is called upon to sing steadily, heroically and often stratospherically, while never abandoning a warm, sweet, near-Mozartean purity. And "Daphne" is more than just Daphne: The score also calls for two high tenors, a mezzo-soprano who can descend to the lowest reaches of the contralto register and an orchestra capable of doing justice to Strauss's seemingly limitless instrumental invention.
Composers such as Rossini and Bellini (and, indeed, the younger Strauss) generally permit singers to luxuriate, to show off a little in the most virtuosic music; Zerbinetta's aria in Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos," for example, presents the soprano as teasing, trilling superwoman who inevitably dazzles an audience and is cheered to the rafters. But "Daphne" holds mere showiness in disdain: A lay listener may not -- should not -- think the opera any fancier or more difficult than "Hansel and Gretel" (to which it bears a certain luminous resemblance). Only a music professional should be privy to the true terrors any performance of "Daphne" entails: On the surface, all must be calm and Olympian.
On purely musical grounds, the City Opera did well by this "Daphne." In the title role, Elizabeth Futral sounded just as fresh in the finale as she did at the beginning of the evening, which was fresh indeed. Her voice is firm and strong, her presence bright, her command of Strauss style assured. Roger Honeywell was ardent and clarion as Daphne's childhood playmate, Leukippos, while Robert Chafin struggled somewhat with the killer role of Apollo but ultimately vanquished all but its most stentorian challenges. Ursula Ferri sang the role of the mother, Gaia, with the eerie, heart-wrenching pathos of One Who Knows All, her voice pulsing with cosmic sorrow, while there was solid support from John Avey, Erick Nelson Werner, Robert Mack, Kyungmook Yum, Bert K. Johnson, Hanan Alattar and Jennifer Tiller.
The gloriously overripe orchestral music in "Daphne" should rightly be played only by an ensemble with the tonal resources of a Berlin Philharmonic or Cleveland Orchestra. Neither of those groups being available, the New York City Opera Orchestra did surpassingly well under the direction of George Manahan, whose leadership was knowing, supportive, lyrical and affectionate.
Unfortunately, the production -- with direction by Stephen Lawless and sets and costumes by Ashley Martin-Davis -- leaves much to be desired. The action takes place in what looks like a hive made from cheap stained glass, the sort of fake-Tiffany-lamp stuff that was endemic to college bars in the late 1970s. The stage is cluttered with extraneous materials -- including some ugly bare trees that Daphne clings to as though she were protecting them from loggers -- and one had the sense that the players were doing their best not to trip over anything.
Lawless sidestepped the difficulties of a physical transformation scene by taking the finale into the abstract. All well and good and maybe the only way to do it, but the abstraction he chose -- Futral, dressed in white, standing on an equally white platform that elevated her slowly off the ground as she reached to the sky for a gigantic white laurel crown -- was a dreary one, devoid of any poetry. When the rain began to fall on the newly transfigured Daphne, the sound of running water all but drowned out the delicious string motto that accompanies the heroine's vocalise. In theory, this should have been transcendent; in practice, it sounded as though somebody had forgotten to turn off the garden hose.
Still, the singing is good, and those who love "Daphne" may want to see what a staged performance looks like. But don't be surprised if this production sends you back to your recordings -- and rapt transformations too sumptuous to live outside the mind.
Daphne will be performed again on Sept. 11, 17, 21, 25 and 30 and Oct. 3. At the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center. Call 212-307-4100.