on 11 November 2000
When works are rarely performed, we may fall into the trap of supposing the neglect is deserved : "if nobody plays it, it's probably no good." Daphne will, if that's the case, come as a surprise to admirers of Strauss song. This relatively compact one-act work, about 100 minutes long, is perhaps the most gloriously vocal of all Strauss's operas (and was, we are told, his wife's favorite).
There are reasons, of course, why performances are rare. Casting and staging may both prove hard. Like Händel and Rossini, Strauss was in a position to write to for great voices; to succeed, Daphne requires, at the least, a strong but lyrical soprano with some agility and a fair range, two outstanding near-Wagnerian tenors, a good bass and a real contralto. The orchestral part was once described (by an exasperated 'cellist) as "needlessly difficult." So much for casting. As to staging, well, bucolic scenes on the slopes of Olympus are hard to bring off: shepherds and flocks, maidens bearing fruit and flowers, heldentenors in Greek mini-tunics... Daphne's transformation into a laurel tree at the end must be the least of the producer's worries. The fact that Strauss's music is more tyrolean than olympic (he calls, for example, for an alphorn) adds to the credibility problem - at least for the more critically inclined.
But those who are fond of Strauss may be more indulgent. This CD set is for them. Staging is, of course, irrelevant (although photos in the libretto prove my point about tenors as Greek shepherds). Casting of this live performance is of a kind that presumably was only possible in Vienna in the fifties and sixties. When "First Maiden" is Rita Streich, you know you're in a lost world. The cast includes Hilde Güden as Daphne, Paul Schöffler, Fritz Wunderlich, James King and - real contralto indeed - Vera Little.
As the work is short, there's no time to lose in stage business (how many of us doze through Act 3 of Rosenkavalier - "wake me for the trio"?). After five minutes of scene-setting, the singing begins, a series of set-pieces (arias, duets, choruses, etc) as clearly-delineated as in Elektra, closer in style to Arabella. By the time Apollo sets eyes on Daphne, less than half way through, we have hit full Straussian rhapsodic mode and the magic is sustained by Böhm. The voices soar above a ferociously difficult orchestral and choral score, Böhm pushing the Vienna Symphony to the brink of chaos (horns understandably stretched, a strangled high note from the principal clarinet, as if he'd sucked instead of blowed and swallowed his reed) until the sublime calm of the (Liebestod-like?) final scene.
The sound is occasionally edgy, Böhm's demands on the orchestra mean there are some wrong notes, Hilde Güden, opting for high notes avoided, 20 years earlier, by Maria Reining, reaches her limits, but this is one of those lives where the excitement carries all. What en evening for those lukcy enough to be there! And it's cheap. If you like Strauss, buy it.