Q: We heard about this Canadian debut performance of Richard Strauss' DAPHNE last week from POV musical director Timothy Vernon. What was your first impression?
A: Set designer Leslie Frankish has created a lovely and evocative setting for the opera, under the branches of a weeping willow next to a pond. The branches form a multi-layered curtain of gauzy leaves that rise and fall at various points throughout the opera creating a beautiful effect. Water nymphs arise from the pond and Daphne's father Peneios – a river god – pours water from his hands into the pond at one point. The overall effect is one that transports the audience into the world of Greek mythology where humans and gods can interact.
POV's last production of Puccini's MANON LESCAUT was moved from its pre-French revolution setting and re-set in World War II Germany. DAPHNE was actually created by Strauss and performed at that time, in 1938 under the Nazi regime. Does anything in this production refer to this difficult fact?
Not that I could see. Director Wim Trompert has chosen to present a version of DAPHNE that seems very faithful to Strauss' original intent to interpret a popular Greek myth about the nymph Daphne who cannot or will not submit to earthly love, and who pays the price for her refusal to conform. This is a powerful and popular myth of transformation (Daphne in the end is changed into the laurel tree by the god Apollo who is one of the two characters who try to seduce her) that has been turned into a number of different opera and ballet versions. Yet, any contemporary audience member who is aware of the origins of this particular DAPHNE, presented by Strauss in Berlin in 1938, is going to feel the tension of its uncomfortable beginnings. I felt that this production plays it a bit on the safe side by not helping us find the connection between then and now...art is always a product of its historical context and in this case, I feel the reality of DAPHNE's origins has been unfortunately ignored. In contrast, while I didn't feel that the updating of MANON LESCAUT was wholly successful, I did like the bravery of such a choice.
How did you feel about the musical aspects of the production?
I am a theatre reviewer and admit my failings in critiquing the musical aspects of POV productions. To my untrained ear, however, the Victoria Symphony under the musical direction of Maestro Timothy Vernon sounded as wonderful as ever. Lead performers in the production sounded beautiful in singing what I understand to be very challenging material. I enjoyed Rebecca Hass' musical and physical interpretation of Daphne's mother Gaea and Anthony Pulgram's Apollo especially, although none of the singers, nor the supporting chorus could be faulted in any way. Leading lady Sookhyung Park is onstage for most of this 100 minute one- act opera and sings gorgeously throughout. Her final moments are particularly affecting as she metamorphises into a tree and sings a wordless melody that is haunting and very memorable. This production is being broadcast by CBC Radio's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and will be a real feather in POV's cap in this regard...a world class musical interpretation.
What about the visual elements?
This is the aspect of the production that did provide some disappointments for me. While I found Frankish's set very beautiful I did have problems with her monochromatic color scheme of black white and gray. I kept wondering why a natural setting wasn't being portrayed in natural colors of green and brown and nothing in the production helped me understand this choice, as the costumes were more naturalistic, the standout one being Daphne's mother Gaea's stunning earthy brown dress woven with tree roots. And Gerald King's lighting was also quite cold, I found, except for a few chosen moments when it becomes golden and quite gorgeous, but then moves back into being rather harsh and chilly again. And the most critical thing I have to say about this production is about Daphne's costume, which I found made her look like a cross between Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Peter Pan. She is supposed to be an unbelievably beautiful young girl who makes both mortal and immortal men fall instantly in love with her...why does she look like so ragged and tomboyish, without even a skirt on to cover her legs? Even if the production begins with her dressed this way, it makes no sense to me that she should not change into a beautiful dress for the Dionysian festival in the second half of the opera. I found it quite hard to overcome the visual portrayal of Daphne in this way, especially when the poster for the production itself shows the character in a lovely gown. This is an example of a costume design working against rather than with a performer.
Any final thoughts on this opera?
This production evoked memories in me of last season's stellar production at UVIC's Phoenix Theatre of Ovid's Metamorphoses. These ancient myths are powerful and full of important morals that still remain significant to our lives today. Strauss himself felt Daphne to be one of his crowning achievements, a love letter to the soprano voice, and it is certainly that. Yet, given its debut in Hitler's Germany and the fact that it has only appeared onstage in North America nearly 70 years later, I was left longing to see the companion piece first presented with Daphne, Friedenstag [The Day of Peace]. It feels to me that it is the message of earthly peace and the transcendent power of nature that Strauss wove into both of these short operas that, together, have something of great value for us today.