I'm trying really hard here not to exaggerate. Still, for many of us in attendance at the Santa Fe Opera's new production of Daphne last Saturday, it was a little like being Halley when that comet swam into view. Or Keats' historically ***image2***incorrect Cortez at his first glimpse of the Pacific. But this time it was hearing Erin Wall sing the title role of Richard Strauss' late, nearly great "bucolic tragedy" with power, feeling and conviction in one of those you-had-to-be-there SFO debuts that happen with happy regularity. Remember Marius Kwiecien in '04 and Anthony Dean Griffey in '05?
Well, you'll not soon forget Wall's Daphne. It's an unforgiving role, much of it lying in a treacherous register too high for comfort for most sopranos. Not here. The fearless, sweet and lovely Wall makes it sound easy, pouring out generous, burnished warmth, moving gracefully about the stage, creating a character for whom mortality is not enough and divinity too little.
Strauss felt a profound kinship with his heroine. Though Daphne predates his masterly "Four Last Songs" by 11 years, there's a sense that it's a fifth and final song for himself as well. His family reports that in the last months of his life the composer played, over and over, the transformation scene of the work. For his final public performance, a documentary filmed on his 85th birthday in June 1949, he chose that passage as well. Three months later he was dead.
For John Crosby, the SFO's founder, Daphne also has special meaning. At the centenary of Strauss' birth in 1964, Crosby gave this work its American stage premiere. Back then Strauss' reputation was in decline and his later work, especially, was disregarded. That this judgment has largely been reversed is partly due to Crosby's championship and the operatic world's revaluation of, say, Capriccio, the composer's final opera, and Daphne. Simply stated, this relatively brief one-act contains some of the most wonderful music composed for the stage in the 20th century. Period.
From the enraptured chamber-music woodwind ensemble that opens the piece, to Daphne's passionate monologue praying that the day remain, to her long lament for the death of her scorned mortal lover, Leukippos, and then that hypnotic final metamorphosis of woman into laurel tree, there's nothing quite comparable in all of opera. The SFO's new production largely succeeds in showing us the truth of this.
Garrett Sorenson takes the lyric tenor role of Leukippos, singing with sweet persuasive force. Gaea, Daphne's anxious earth-mother, is sung by Meredith Arwady, whose comfortable contralto moves easily through the sub-basement range of the part. Matthew Best sings Peneios, Daphne's Wotanesque fisherman father, with conviction and appropriate gravity. Strauss assigned some of his toughest-ever stretches of heroic tenor declamation to Apollo, Daphne's would-be immortal lover. Scott MacAllister strives manfully but isn't up to divinity. His stage presence lacks authority and much of the time his voice doesn't blaze over Strauss' orchestra.
And about that orchestra, led by Kenneth Montgomery. Despite some fine woodwind sounds, opening night lacked luster, marked by blurred entrances and a sense of duty not inspiration. Mark Lamos staged the show with clean focus and a solid understanding of the score. Strauss didn't want idealized Greek-vase imagery for his mythic romance, and Lamos' shepherds (herding live sheep onstage!) and frisky fishermen seem a rough lot, especially in their Dionysian feasting. One caveat: That gorgeous transformation scene doesn't need shrubbery sproinging up from the floor. Seán Curran choreographs his dozen skillful dancers with appropriate Bacchic frenzy.
Allen Moyer's pared-down stage design sticks pretty closely to Strauss' scenic directions: rocks, a tree brilliantly lit by Rick Fisher, and a stylized river created by showcasing that strange water-channel separating audience from orchestra. Costumes by Jane Greenwood are equally simple, unobtrusive and effective.
I've never felt that Strauss' definition of Daphne as a pastoral tragedy makes much sense. Despite the death of the insipid shepherd Leukippos and preening Apollo's sexual frustration, Daphne's final integration with the natural world is hardly tragic. This opera may be one of the significant eco-centric works of our time. As Erin Wall presents her, Daphne is less myth than a cautionary vision of a world that's losing its connection with nature. She's just following Lennon and McCartney's orders: Get back to where you once belonged.
Various times and dates
Through Aug. 17
Santa Fe Opera
seven miles north of