Bucolic and bittersweet: Daphne at the Hamburgische Staatsoper

Strauss – Daphne

Apollo – Eric Cutler
Peneios – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Gaea – Hanna Schwarz
Daphne – Agneta Eichenholz
Leukippos – Peter Lodahl
1. Schäfer – Roger Smeets
2. Schäfer – Sergiu Saplacan
3. Schäfer – Simon Schnorr
4. Schäfer – Bruno Vargas
1. Magd – Raffaela Lintl
2.Magd – Dorottya Láng

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Michael Boder.
Stage director – Christof Loy.

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Saturday, June 11th, 2016.

Having already seen five Strauss operas this year, tonight I had the pleasure of seeing the Hamburg Staatsoper’s new production of Daphne on what was in fact Strauss’ birthday.  Previously seen in Basel, Christof Loy’s staging is an intelligent and perceptive piece of theatre.  Where Loy succeeds, is in leaving the interpretation of the events on stage in the minds of those watching it, so that it may well be that those sitting next to me would have thought very differently about the show.

Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Agneta Eichenholz, Hanna Schwarz, Peter Lodahl, Dorottya Láng, dancers and the  Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Agneta Eichenholz, Hanna Schwarz, Peter Lodahl, Dorottya Láng, dancers and the Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

In a way, I felt that Loy’s main theme in this production was an exploration of the role of women in society.  Daphne, the maids and Gaea are very much a minority in this setting, a hyper-male, sexualized environment.  This was perhaps expressed by the fact that the three younger ladies are dressed as waitresses, emphasizing their role as people who serve, and Hanna Schwarz’s Gaea is a dominant Patsy Stone-like figure who enjoys a drink or two.  In the ceremony even some of the women, dressed in dirndls, look like men in drag.  The ceremony itself is an animalistic one with semi-naked men running around like dogs chasing after items of clothing.  My impression was that with Leukippos wearing the dress, Loy was suggesting that this was his way of escaping this hyper-masculine society and a way to bring himself closer to Daphne.  Yet by doing so, the only possible outcome was that Daphne stabbed him rather than him being struck down by Apollo’s arrow.  I found it a highly convincing interpretation.

Agneta Eichenholz, Hanna Schwarz, Bruno Vargas, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, dancers and the Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg.  Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Agneta Eichenholz, Hanna Schwarz, Bruno Vargas, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, dancers and the Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

As the opera closes we see Daphne being led away in handcuffs by a crowd of men rather than being transformed into a tree.  The transformation music is echoed with a bare stage with only Leukippos’ body to be seen.  As Daphne sings her closing off-stage lines the stage is lit as if by sunrise.  Whereas earlier in the evening we were exposed to blinding lightning from Apollo, here the light was soft and mellow.  The effect was beautiful, suggesting Daphne had found happiness at last by joining the sun, but it was also a clever way of avoiding having to show a soprano transform into a tree.  In turn, I felt that Loy ideally encapsulated the bittersweet nature of the ending and it made for a beautiful conclusion.  Elsewhere, personenregie was efficient enough, though there was some standing and delivering.  It also felt to me that Loy was aware of the constant changes of the music finding a stillness in his regie where it was required.

Agneta Eichenholz.  Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Agneta Eichenholz. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Musically, there were many very positive aspects to the evening.  The demands that Strauss places on his singers are extreme.  The titular character is required to sing a high lyrical line as well as being able to carry over the orchestra.  The two tenor roles are both extremely high with one punishingly big and the other high and declamatory.  The contralto role of Gaea lies extremely low and it is only the bass role of Peneios that is slightly less punishing with a need only for a good line and solid bottom.  Agneta Eichenholz certainly had all the notes for Daphne.  Her voice had cutting power to spare and she projected easily across the big orchestral sound.  Her innate musicality was a pleasure to hear and her ability to phrase those long lines was magical.  The voice does tend to shrillness at the very top and there is perhaps a limited range of tone colours.  That said, her naturally voluptuous tone gave a great deal of pleasure.

Agneta Eichenholz, Eric Cutler.  Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Agneta Eichenholz, Eric Cutler. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Eric Cutler was a phenomenal Apollo, the voice seemingly without limits.  It was a thing of wonder to hear how to the voice opened up thrillingly at the top and he was also able to fine down to the tone in an instant to produce some perfectly supported (and tuned) pianissimi.  The way he executed those diminuendi without ever compromising the beauty of the tone was something very special indeed.  The big duet with Eichenholz was absolutely glorious, the voice soaring higher and higher in the most thrilling way.  His singing was always so utterly musical and never mannered.  The voice isn’t perhaps the biggest to have essayed this role but I doubt there has been a healthier sounding one and Cutler never succumbed to the urge to force.  Outstanding.

Peter Lodahl, Agneta Eichenholz, Eric Cutler.  Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Peter Lodahl, Agneta Eichenholz, Eric Cutler. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Peter Lodahl sang Leukippos in an easy, handsome and bright lyric tenor.  The high declamatory writing was executed with ease and one felt absolutely secure in his vocalism.  He is also an engaging actor.  Hanna Schwarz camped it up magnificently as Gaea meets Patsy Stone.  The lower ranges of the part were full and rich and her orange-toned mezzo tonight seemed to defy the years.  Wilhelm Schwinghammer was an excellent Peneios displaying an elegant legato and a warm, rich tone.  I have no doubt that this is a voice that is going to fill out even more as time goes on – it’s already a beautiful sound and his sense of line and impeccable word painting really are something special.

Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Hanna Schwarz, dancers and the Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg.  Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Hanna Schwarz, dancers and the Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The remaining roles were very well executed and a credit to the extremely high standards of the Hamburg ensemble.  The maids were especially mellifluous.  The gentlemen of the chorus sang with good blend and threw themselves into the staging with aplomb.  What a pleasure it was to hear the strings of the excellent house band playing with impeccable intonation and a genuine sense of Straussian sweep.  The solo oboe also offered playing of easy lyricism and great beauty.  The brass, especially the trumpets in the final scene, had a few accidents but otherwise this really was excellent orchestral playing certainly worthy of this august institution.  Michael Boder led a reading that lingered over moments of beauty but also allowed the magnificent climaxes to bloom fully.  Personally, I would have preferred a slightly swifter reading – there was a slight sense of it dragging in places – but Boder did have an unerring sense of the work’s architecture.

Eric Cutler, dancers and the Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg.  Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Eric Cutler, dancers and the Herrenchor der Staatsoper Hamburg. Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Tonight was an evening that really had so much to offer.  We had some glorious singing and orchestral playing of security and warmth.  We were also given a production that left much to the spectator and allowed us to imagine much of what we saw on stage.  I found it an intelligent and perceptive piece of theatre and when performed as well as it was tonight, it gave us a deeply satisfying evening of opera.

 

 

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