Saturday, August 17, 2013

Richard Strauss: Daphne, at Helsinki Music Center, with Soile Isokoski, and Susanna Mälkki conducting the Finnish National Opera orchestra and choir

Daphne – Bukolische Tragödie in einem Aufzug / Daphne a Bucolic Tragedy in One Act (Opus 82, TrV 272). DE 1938. Composer: Richard Strauss. Das Textbuch / libretto: Joseph Gregor. Die Uraufführung fand am 15. Oktober 1938 in der Dresdner Semperoper unter der Oberspielleitung von Max Hofmüller statt. / Premiere: 15 October, 1938, at the Semperoper in Dresden. Dedicated to Karl Böhm, the conductor of the premiere. 105 min

The time and the place of the action: the hut of Peneios by the shore of the river Peneios, Greece, in mythical time.

A concert presentation at Helsinki Festival. A 50th anniversary event of the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera. A special visit of the Orchestra and the Choir of the Finnish National Opera at the Helsinki Music Center. Sung in German with e-surtitles in Finnish and English, 17 August 2013

Conductor: Susanna Mälkki

Jyrki Korhonen (Peneios / Pineios, a fisherman / river god), bass 
Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano (Gaea / Gaia, his wife / mother Earth, written for contralto)
Soile Isokoski (Daphne, their daughter), soprano
Ladislav Elgr (Leukippos, a shepherd), tenor
Scott MacAllister (Apollo), tenor
Tuomas Katajala, Jussi Merikanto, Koit Soasepp, Hannu Forsberg / Four shepherds
Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Ann-Marie Heino / Two maids

The programme information reveals that this is a Finnish premiere of the late masterpiece of Richard Strauss.

Daphne is the oldest and one of the most frequently adapted themes in the history of music. The libretto is based on Greek mythology as written down by the Roman Ovid in Metamorphoses in the year 8. The first work of Jacopo Peri, the inventor of opera, was Dafne (around 1597, a lost work).

Daphne (Δάφνη = laurel), a Naiad, was a nymph associated with fresh water in Greek mythology. Because of her beauty Daphne attracted the attention of Apollo, the god of the sun. Just before falling in love with Apollo Daphne pleaded to her mother Gaia (mother Earth), and was swallowed into the earth and reborn as a laurel tree.

The libretto is also based on elements in the tragedy The Bacchae / The Bacchantes (Βάκχαι, 405 BC) by the Greek playwright Euripides. (Facts compiled from various language editions of Wikipedia).

Strauss developed for Daphne a special claire obscure style to endow "the character of Daphne with the obscurity she needs to express her fateful dependence from nature and her restraint towards people" (a letter from Strauss to Gregor, 26 January, 1936).

"Couldn't Daphne be seen as a human incarnation of nature, moved by the gods Apollo and Dionysos ... whom she can sense but not comprehend, and only through death she can grow into a symbol of an eternal artwork, a perfect laurel tree?" (Strauss to Gregor, 8 March, 1936).

Daphne, the daughter of the river god and the mother earth, is a pure-natured child, at one with trees, flowers, and fountains. At a vine celebration of Dionysos the childhood friends Leukippos and Apollo make advances to the fascinating nymph, but due to her nature she cannot feel sensual love. Leukippos proceeds with a ruse. He dresses as a girl and offers Daphne the drink of Dionysos in order to awaken her senses. Apollo reveals to Daphne the intentions of Leukippos and kills him after a row. Daphne feels she has been unduly accused and that wine has estranged her from her actual being. Apollo's symphathy is evoked. He asks Zeus to bring Daphne back to her original self and give her to Apollo, if not as a woman, then as an evergreen laurel tree. The metamorphosis takes place. (From András Batta: Opera. Komponisten - Werke - Interpreten, 2005)

In my spare time I have been working all summer long editing a book Citizen Peter, on Peter von Bagh, written by 50 amazing experts, colleagues and friends, finishing the last details yesterday, and then proceeding to the Helsinki Festival opening reception at the City Hall, exhausted but happy.

After a good night's sleep I'm all set for an eagerly anticipated event, Daphne with Soile Isokoski. I am not a concert-goer or an opera-goer, just an avid listener of music at home, and Isokoski is a big favourite. Just before the concert I have been listening to a programme about the music favourites of Paavo Suokko, with a special celebration of Isokoski. I usually turn the radio off when hymns are played, but when it is Isokoski, I turn up the volume.

I don't think I have heard Daphne before, but it is an enchanting and deeply moving work. There is a mythical feeling of eternal time. Written during the Nazi regime which Richard Strauss despised he continued working with themes that could not be banned.

Johan Tallgren was sitting nearby, and he told me about Isokoski's high international standing as a Richard Strauss interpreter.

Noblesse: Isokoski's was a superb and precious lyrical performance, with nobility and clarity. There was perhaps a slight touch of tension and struggle in the highly anticipated performance, the fine sensitivity having to make itself felt against the big orchestra and the big choir. All singers were great.

The orchestra and the choir of the Finnish National Opera played with passion and grandeur. I responded to the purity of the emotion in the interpretation.

I was also aware of the tremendous challenge that Susanna Mälkki must have been facing in adapting the volume of the orchestra and the choir to the sensitive lyrical soprano. An extremely difficult (impossible?) equation. Such a suspense element was, however, relevant to the theme of the opera.

This was a concert performance of an opera. I would not have been able to make sense of the story if I had not read about it in advance. The singers were not dressed in role costumes in this tale of disguises and metamorphoses. The translations were good and essential in getting out the lyrics even though I understand German. As the background to the electrical surtitles there were images that reminded me of karaoke videos of the 1980s, but they were discreet and not distracting.

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