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Koln 2004 Live
Daphne: Renée Fleming
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Daphne's opening scene is a paean to the sun, light and day (which Apollo interprets sexually and so comes to earth) introduced by one of Strauss' most beautiful pieces of choral writing from a male only chorus. It's easy lyricism sets up the character's all important innocence and contrasts starkly with the darker episodes in the centre of the opera. The first half is perhaps not the most memorable portion of the opera, but the music builds in beauty, and that soaring violin melody that closes it is typical of the opera's interludes which bridge the opera's longer vocal scenes - a little fragment of wondrous beauty that ends almost before it's begun and is so beautiful that it almost risks outshining what it frames! In this case the violin melody refers back to the opening of the scene, which has a similar section.
Strauss' operas are amongst the most fearsomely difficult for the orchestra to play and even in this company, Daphne is considered a particular virtuoso challenge for an orchestra, perhaps his most demanding score. Aside from this it is also incredibly difficult to cast - it requires a youthful sounding soprano comfortable with the very high tessitura who can nevertheless ride the orchestra in the considerable climaxes and with enough stamina to sing the role's very long scenas. It also requires a true contralto or "tief-alt" that can properly support down to a bottom E, and not one, but two heldentenors (or one helden and a lyric with superb technique) who both also have to maintain a consistently high tessitura. The score has moments of wondrous orchestral and vocal beauty though there are also stretches of routine (as always in Strauss operas, especially when it comes to the tenors). Dramatically it is rather flat, with a highly problematic libretto (that the always incisive Strauss referred to as "Not particularly felicitously imitated Homeric jargon"). So all in all, it is perhaps little wonder that it is rarely produced! I do love it though, flaws and all, and wish it could be staged a little more frequently.
It had a very special place in Strauss' heart for reasons that have not been entirely satisfactorily explained. It was also his wife's favourite opera amongst her husband's works. In it we hear the beginnings of the famous Indian Summer which includes Capriccio and The Four Last Songs, though the harmony is more exploratory and the music hasn't attained that honeyed relaxation that the later masterpieces have.
I always had a problem with Fleming's commercially released recording of Daphne - the sound engineering is detailed yet flat and the micing of the voices is far too close with the result that Fleming sounded dryer than usual and a bit too mature for the role - there's no room for the sound to bloom, and since they derived from live performances, I wondered if Fleming was also simply under the weather. Additionally I felt Fleming somehow lacked identification with the character and was a bit bland interpretively (something I felt was true for the rest of the cast too)
This wonderful radio broadcast finally captures Fleming's Daphne in beautiful sound, with proper microphone placement, and with Fleming in much better voice. It's a performance that is much more deeply felt throughout too, and Bychkov doesn't drive the tempos so much so everywhere the piece breathes more freely. It's a shame it wasn't used as the basis for the commercial release, but it might be something to do with the Leukippos Jeffrey Dowd who is not as vocally accomplished as Michael Schade.
In any case, this is one of several postings that will finally bring Fleming's Daphne to proper light.
Unheilvolle Daphne can be heard here:
The final scene "Ich komme grunende bruder" is here:
The Duet with Apollo can be heard here: