A remarkable success for the Scottish premiere of Richard Strauss’s Daphne in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss, Daphne: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor). Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 5.9.2023. (GT)

Hye-Youn Lee (Daphne) and Brad Cooper (Apollo) © Sally Jubb

Cast :
Daphne – Hye-Youn Lee
Leukippos – Shengzhi Ren
Apollo – Brad Cooper
Peneios – Dingle Yandell
Gaea – Claire Barnett-Jones
Shepherds – Ross Cumming, Monwabisi Lindi, Colin Murray. Francis Church
Maids – Catriona Hewitson, Inna Husieva

Production :
Concert Staging – Emma Jenkins
Costumes – Rachel Jackson
Lighting – Andrew Burnside
Production – Suzie Normand

This semi-staged performance of Daphne (subtitled ‘Bucolic Tragedy in One Act’) is the first in Scotland and although it contains some of the composer’s most attractive music, it is regrettable that this fairytale opera lacks a staging more appropriate to its story. However, perhaps this is a sign of the times because in the recent Edinburgh International Festival all the operas were given in concert at the Usher Hall.

Richard Strauss composed his mythical Greek opera in 1937 during the first years of the Third Reich, and without sets, Emma Jenkins’s staging hints at the pre-war period in Germany rather than the Greek mythology which inspired Joseph Gregor’s libretto. Jenkins also implies an allegory with the student protests against Hitler led by Sophie Scholl and is laden with symbolism as in several of the composer’s most important operas. Of course, without sets, one’s attention is more turned to the voices and the orchestra, and thankfully Richard Strauss’s score is decorated with the most glorious melodies and singing.

Hye-Youn Lee (Daphne) and Shengzhi Ren (Leukippos) © Sally Jubb

On stage was only a card table with two chairs and four suspended lights. This bleak, chilling setting allowed the audience to enter more closely into the narrative of Gregor’s libretto and the gorgeous orchestration by Strauss. The singing by the young Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee was delicious and her portrayal of the challenging role of Daphne was tremendous; her extended opening aria was magnificent, as was her heart-breaking singing over the corpse of her lover. Another outstanding characterisation was that of her beau – Shengzhi Ren, whose expressive tenor was another highlight.

Making his debut was the Apollo of Brad Cooper – perhaps the finest performance of all, particularly in his triumphant aria. Of the other roles, Daphne’s mother Gaea was finely portrayed by another debutante in Scotland, Claire Barnett-Jones, though her singing in the first scene opening with a difficult E-flat low note was challenging. Daphne’s father Peneios was finely acted and sung by the Australian Dingle Yandell. The secondary roles were all well sung and performed; most impressive were the shepherds and the chorus members who, at times, marched on as if from the Third Reich, creating an atmosphere of threatening imagery led by the leather coat of Apollo brandishing his luger pistol aloft.

I liked the characterisations of Ross Cumming as the First Shepherd and Colin Murray as the Third Shepherd especially following their fine performances last year for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Opera Studio. The orchestra – enlarged in its brass and wind departments – was in fine form under the baton of Stuart Stratford, with delicious playing by the flutes and clarinets especially well-backed by the strings. Strauss’s score has some delightful passages for the woodwind, in particular, the flutes accompaniment of Daphne’s beautifully sung aria ‘O, bleib, geliebter tag!’ The scoring is richly ornamented throughout, making one wonder why this late work is so rarely staged.

In all, this was a major success for Scottish Opera – and with this semi-staged performance, perhaps we should get used to more concert performances of opera as the arts enter a period of financial stringency in Scotland. This evening nevertheless showed that the company can bring out all the harmonies of such a magnificent score and enhance them by great singing from some outstanding young singers. The opera toured recently to the Lammermuir Festival before a one-off performance at the Usher Hall on 10 December.

Gregor Tassie

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