REVIEW: Daphne, Arcola Theatre ✭✭

Daphne at the Grimeborn Opera Festival

Arcola Studio 1
2 Stars

Richard Strauss wrote his one-act opera Daphne late in his compositional career, in the mid-1930s. It is not performed often and is ripe for revival as part of the Grimeborn Festival’s commitment to rediscovery of repertory. It also offers pretty much a full evening in the theatre because even as only one act it runs to over 90 minutes. It is an odd abstract work, full of gorgeous music and several affecting dramatic scenes, but its sub-title – bucolic tragedy – already indicates some of the problems of definition that lie in wait for any creative team.

The plot is remarkably simple on the surface and sticks quite close to Greek mythology as told by Ovid (Metamotphoses) and Euripides (The Bakkhai). Daphne, (Justine Viani) a naiad or nymph, is at home in the natural world but alienated from the complexities of social and political life, and the temptations of sexual love and romance. She rejects first a childhood friend, Leukippos (Panos Ntourntoufis) and then the god Apollo (John Upperton) first in disguise as a herdsman and then as a guest at a feast to honour Dionysos which has been organized by her parents Peneios (James Gower) and Gaea (Violetta Gawara). This turns out to be a ‘party from hell’ where Leukippos dresses up in a festival outfit which Daphne had declined and, after various misundstandings , Apollo shoots Leukippos dead with an arrow. Daphne’s mourning induces Apollo to regret his actions; so he requests Zeus to transforms Daphne into a laurel tree, a fate she eagerly embraces as a union with nature.

Daphne at the Grimeborn Opera Festival

What are we or, for that matter, theatre directors to make of this? Is this a work of deep symbolism or a simple, charming retelling of an ancient story? Opera at Home and director Jose Gandia have chosen to relocate the work to the time it was written – Nazi Germany. All the authority figures are taken out of Greece and become military and civilian commanders; Daphne and her mother wear fashionable evening gowns, and a trio of Jewish refugees appear to receive physical abuse at intervals in the drama, before the transformation scene encloses and wraps them and Daphne herself in a bouquet of barbed wire presumably standing duty for a concentration camp.

I cannot say that I find this take on the drama convincing.

These additions are gestures rather than a thoroughly worked through and integrated reinterpretation, and the final scene flies in the face of the intentions of composer and librettist. The transformation is a vindication and coming home for Daphne, and to convert this into barbed confinement with other victims does no one any favours. It is true that there is a lot to be said about the fascinating varieties of collaboration and resistance that Strauss enacted in the 1930s; but this has already been well covered by Ronald Harwood in his play Collaboration. Moreover, these concerns do not overflow into this particular work where the main contrast is between the innocence and purity of the natural world and the general corruption of wider society. If there is a critique of the times on offer here it is much more oblique and part of Strauss’ attempt to withdraw from a public life he increasingly viewed with distaste into more intimate timeless themes. What might work better in production would be an environmentalist scenario rather than a reversion to 1930s Germany, by now something of an operatic cliché.

Daphne at the Grimeborn Opera Festival

There is another serious problem with this production, and that is the lack of an orchestra or at least a small ensemble to flesh out the textures. I understand that this is not the fault of Opera at Home who were denied permission by the Strauss Estate to use any more than a piano. That said, in post-Wagnerian operas of this kind the instrumental textures are key players in the drama, not simply a comforting harmonic underlay. At the three or four key moments in this drama the life drained away from what should be gorgeously achieved climaxes because the orchestra was not there.

This is no criticism of the excellent playing of Marta Lopez but a recognition that unlike most of the Grimeborn operas which have used reduced forces this year, a good deal of the essence of the piece has gone, not simply the decoration. Strauss wrote his scores with an ear for sonic intricacy designed to achieve simple effects. Remove the tightly woven detail and little is left. If sumptuously scented climbing roses, lines endlessly interwined, are removed from a cottage garden wall what remains is still just a wall, however pretty the brickwork.

Daphne at the Grimeborn Opera Festival

There are some fine performances and others where the technical challenge of the writing imposes audible strains. As Daphne, Viani acted with appropriate grace and serenity and certainly possesses the right weight of voice for this kind of soprano role. Her handling of the quickfire exchanges in what is often a wordy libretto was excellent too. However in the soaring long-breathed lines of her hymn to nature, her response to Apollo and in the final transformation, intonation was more insecure and the tone somewhat forced.

Strauss’ heroic tenor roles are impossibly difficult, requiring weight of voice alongside command of high tessitura, to a degree that rarely occurs in nature. That said, both Upperton and Ntourntoufis seemed under vocal pressure for considerable parts of the evening which detracted from their convincing acting and strong physical presence on stage. Gower and Gawara both sang excellently in the smaller roles of Daphne’s parents, fully to the pitch of their roles, and the minor roles of the shepherds and maids were more than capably sung by young singers of whom we shall doubtless hear more soon. Jose Gandia, in addition to directing, also set appropriate tempi with the right kind of flexibility in the main scenes where there are several awkward turns in the score.

Daphne at the Grimeborn Opera Festival

Not everything in Grimeborn can work and while the commitment of all concerned deserves recognition, this adaptation cannot be considered wholly successful. As a better test of its worth though, I do hope further performances can be arranged with a full ensemble of strings, woodwind and brass. If all the main lines are present, the core of this delicate work can still generate the right kind of silvery shimmer.

One final grumble: can someone at the Arcola please relocate the projected surtitles to a position where all the audience can see them? It’s been done in previous years – what is the problem in 2015?

Find out more about he Grimeborn Opera Festival

, , , , , , ,