Orchestral and vocal riches as Daphne is revived at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden

GermanyGermany Richard Strauss, Daphne: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Thomas Guggeis (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 20.1.2024. (MB)

Staatsoper Berlin’s Daphne © Monika Rittershaus

Director, Set design, Costumes, Lighting – Romeo Castellucci
Revival director – José Dario Innella
Choreography – Evelin Facchini
Assistant director – Maxi Menja Lehmann
Set design assistance – Lisa Behensky, Alessio Valmori
Costume assistance – Clara Rosina Straßer, Theresa Wilson
Lighting assistance – Marco Giusti
Chorus director – Gerhard Polifka

Peneios – René Pape
Gaea – Anna Kissjudi
Daphne – Vera-Lotte Boecker
Leukippos – Johan Krogius
Apollo – David Butt Philip
Four Shepherds – Arttu Kataja, Florian Hoffmann, Adam Kutuy, Friedrich Hamel
Two Maids – Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka

Seen for the first time last year, Romeo Castellucci’s production of Daphne receives its first revival. In one sense, it could hardly be more timely, snow falling outside in wintry landscapes across Berlin and beyond, as it does onstage. Yet that immediately presents a greater untimeliness to the mise-en-scène, for a modern snowscape seems perversely distant from the Thessalian pastoral of Joseph Gregor’s libretto (and Richard Strauss’s imagination). It is beautiful, of course, and with Castellucci, matters aesthetic have a tendency to take on a life, approaching the painterly, of their own. I have heard it said several times that Castellucci has no concept of the dramatic; I think that goes too far in this case, for this is no ‘mere’ installation and a story certainly is told. But the alterity to his aesthetic imagination, to which audiences, perhaps particularly opera audiences, respond very differently, is undeniably present — to my mind, more fruitfully than in, say, his Munich Tannhäuser or even his Salzburg Salome. It may or may not be the story some want to be told – ultimately, I think it remains the same story, albeit from an angle unexpected until one becomes accustomed to its shift – but we certainly have narrative and development as well as setting.

Staatsoper Berlin’s Daphne © Monika Rittershaus

That setting is one of widespread estrangement from Nature: not, I think, in an especially environmentalist sense, though that need not be excluded, but more existential. In light of that, the conception of the nymph Daphne, according to a programme interview, as ‘a being who withdraws from all social relationships in search of intensive, I should say, (skin-)contact with Nature … a contemporary creature who breaks with her surroundings’, seems central; so is her spiritual, as opposed to political, need to do so. And so, even in the deep snow, it is there she wishes to be. Whilst others, not unreasonably layer their clothing, she sheds much of hers. It is for us a radical break with all we value, social, erotic, and so on — and therein captures the dramatic essence of the work more clearly than one might suspect. The unexpected slant makes clear what that essence and her character are not.

When Apollo does eventually bring sun to this world it registers powerfully, within its frame. He, after all, is far from entirely at home with himself, having uncomfortably, even shamefully, adopted the methods of Dionysus to ensnare the nymph. But acting in accordance with Nature brings the three key figures, Daphne, Apollo, and Leukippos briefly together, to an extent that would otherwise have been impossible; initial estrangement arguably assists that. I honestly cannot say I understood why the cover of the first edition of The Waste Land descended. It came across a bit too much as ‘referencing’ rather than drama, though I suppose quotation is inherent to the poem, and the act had an aesthetic as well as intellectual presence of its own. I am assuming, I think correctly, that there is greater significance to the invocation of Eliot than simply the scene of a winter wasteland. But to return to the snow, one thing one can do with and in it is a favourite act of Castellucci’s: burial. (Another is the blood-like pouring and smearing of red paint over the dying Leukippos, with tar-black reserved for Daphne herself.) Daphne’s transformation takes place both below – soon, we can no longer see her – and above, as the tree present throughout has a sort of apotheosis. There is something magical here, in the simplicity and wonder: ever tied or at least related to Strauss’s inspired orchestral and, eventually, vocalised concluding transformation (very much the composer’s own idea, rejecting Gregor’s idea of a choral finale).

Whilst we naturally – rightly – accord Daphne’s vocalise a key role here, it is actually quite short; for the most part this transformation is orchestral, and Strauss called it an ‘extended orchestral piece’. Here and elsewhere, Thomas Guggeis led the Staatskapelle Berlin with true distinction. From the opening Harmoniemusik through the score, the conductor traced an ever-transforming path, perhaps warmer than what we saw on stage, yet rarely heated and never remotely over-heated. This was a reading of subtle mastery, upset at most a couple of times by something intrusive from without — though that is arguably Strauss’s own responsibility. The Goethian metamorphosis that surely underpins Strauss’s method here as strongly and as generatively as in Metamorphosen was painted, indeed lived, as if this were a work far more frequently performed than it is; that is, conductor and orchestra showed deep knowledge and understanding, without loss to a proper sense of discovery and magic. For the orchestral players were at least equal participants in this achievement; I cannot imagine any orchestra, be it in Vienna, Dresden, or elsewhere, sounding more at home and proving a more rewarding guide.

The cast likewise made an outstanding contribution. In the title role, Vera-Lotte Boecker’s silver tone glistened, gleamed and blended with her orchestral colleagues, though it could certainly grow into something fuller-voiced, thrillingly so, when called upon. Boecker entered enthusiastically, moreover, into the staging, grasping Castellucci’s at-times-somewhat abstract enigmas and personifying them, enabling one to believe. Like her fellow performers, she played the Straussian role of Music as well as singing or playing its lower-case cousin. To have had not one but two excellent Straussian tenor performances is quite something. Johan Krogius and David Butt Philip both shone as Leukippos and Apollo respectively: the former offering a properly rounded portrayal, beautifully sung, Daphne’s likeable companion revealing tragic dignity in death; the latter’s rather different journey traced sympathetically and with due mystery. The deep voices of René Pape as Peneios and Anna Kissjudit as Gaea contributed much to the ensemble. Kissjudit may be described as a mezzo-soprano, but her chalumeau-like tones revealed, as in her Erda (review here), the ability to sing a true contralto line too. Pape’s tone was similarly luxurious and similarly attentive to words. Shepherds, maids, and chorus were all excellent too. If Castellucci sometimes held the drama at arm’s length, though mirroring and responding it to throughout, that distance and conception of distance arguably enabled the riches of the evening’s orchestral and vocal performances to penetrate audience consciousness the more readily.

Mark Berry

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