- Vera-Lotte Boecker, Thomas Guggeis, Berlin Staatsoper: “Daphne” (live performance)
- Chen Reiss, Matthias Goerne, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Christoph Eschenbach: “Der ferne Klang… Orchestral Works & Songs by Franz Schreker” (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Bamberg Symphony, Jakub Hrůša: “Liebestod” (Accentus)
- Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Rafael Payare: “Mahler: Symphony No. 5” (Pentatone)
If I had to name a favorite Strauss opera, “Daphne” would make a Cinderella-run to the center of my bracket. It doesn’t have the revolutionary spirit of “Salome,” nor the orgiastic horns of “Der Rosenkavalier.” It’s weird, but not in the way that “Die Frau ohne Schatten” is weird, and in terms of Strauss’s affinity for ancient myth and drama, it’s easily eclipsed by “Elektra.”
To be clear, it’s a flawed work. The final scene, in which Daphne metamorphoses into a tree, is notoriously impossible to stage. Strauss retreats into lush, at times even reactionary melody, what Edward Said described as a “strangely recapitulatory and even backward-looking and abstracted quality.” The spun-sugar moments of “Der Rosenkavalier” at least feel like a form of sly social commentary, but “Daphne” is effectively the Disney Princess version of “Salome”: A girl in a seemingly supportive family is undone by the desires of others, rather than her own. It’s a striking, though perhaps unintentional, bit of autobiography on Strauss’s part, given that “Daphne” premiered in 1938 (and was originally due to have a libretto by the Austrian-Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig). As the title heroine ascends both vocally and physically in the opera’s final moments, you can see Strauss burying his head deeper and deeper into the sand as National Socialism took over his world. The man whom Hans von Bülow once described as “Richard III”—a nod to Strauss’s inheritance of Richard Wagner’s legacy as the future of German music, as well as a backhanded compliment (no one, he believed could be a direct successor to Wagner)—was abdicating his responsibility for the future.
This was one of the reasons I found myself disagreeing with fellow VAN contributor Eleonore Büning in her review of the Berlin Staatsoper’s new production of “Daphne,” whose closing performance I saw earlier this month. Staging an opera in the doldrums of nuclear winter (as Romeo Castellucci does here) may not be a revolutionary concept; it didn’t even uniformly work for this production. But when it did work, it was illuminating. It was also more effective than the previous staging I’d seen at New York City Opera in 2004, which rendered the historical connection with a more hackneyed literalness by filling the stage with Brownshirts, indicating the disorder about to take over the world.
Here, that disorder has seemingly already occurred. There are equally overly-literal moments (towards the end, a giant title page for T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is lowered onstage). But the interesting parts came, perhaps unintentionally, from the incongruities Castellucci creates onstage. When Daphne’s father, the river god Peneus (here René Pape), sings of the promise of a future in which the gods return to earth, shades of “Rheingold” take over in the score. It’s a musical augur, one that makes you wonder if the winter of Daphne’s discontent is actually the last bastion of the Good Days; I can’t help but envision an Apollo-to-Valhalla pipeline.
In the title role, Vera-Lotte Boecker had moments of clarion top notes so blazing they came across as the sonic equivalent of all-id—I felt the opera house shake a little bit when she cried out the name of her murdered childhood friend, Leukippos. These moments coalesced in the final transfiguration—a silken vocalise that spirals up, up, against the schizophrenic scratch of strings. Conductor Thomas Guggeis, despite moments where he let the reins go a little too slack, made these final bars count.
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Strauss outlived Franz Schreker, a composer 14 years his junior, by another 15 years (only the good die young). And, while Schreker is a comparative rarity in opera houses today, for a time he was also hailed as the future of the art form. That was, of course, before the Good Days of the Weimar Republic (and their attendant poverty and inflation) ended with the rise of the Third Reich, and the Austrian-Jewish Schreker’s music was buried under an avalanche of Nazi ideology. It’s possible that Schreker could have outlived this, but he suffered a stroke the same year that Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany and died a few months later.
The work that made Schreker an overnight success was his 1912 opera “Der ferne Klang,” a work Schreker began in 1903, abandoned, then revisited after seeing the premiere of “Salome.” Those early Strauss textures—ominous, psychological, and kinky—leave their fingerprints on Schreker’s “Nachtstück,” an Act III intermezzo for “Klang” that was the first piece he wrote in the opera (it premiered in an orchestral setting several years before the complete work). In context, the “Nachtstück” recapitulates the opera-within-an-opera written by main character Fritz, a tragic hero who forsakes love for art in relentless pursuit of the titular “distant noise.”
The effect is musical roman à clef, with Fritz’s opera mirroring the style and substance of Schreker’s own, even ending with the same unsettling notes. A warm and lush love theme winds in and out of a thornier forest of psychological deadwood. The burnished tones that glow underneath Straussian harp and bell shimmers also hint at Mahler—Robert Fuchs, Schreker’s teacher, gave lessons to both. The structure of “Nachtstück,” however, is far from symphonic (or even tone poetic). In the style of Eliot, it meanders in what musicologist Peter Franklin best described as “stream of consciousness.” In the wrong director’s hands, this can make the opera itself a slog through philosophical debate and social critique. The same can be said for the “Nachtstück” as a standalone concert work. Christoph Eschenbach, who has spent the last 20 years happily mired in the weeds of Schreker’s music, keeps things just taut enough that the 17-minute piece unfolds at a solid pace with ethereal timbre and cinematic texture.
This is the opening salvo of Eschenbach’s all-Schreker album, “Der ferne Klang.” Despite the confusion in the title, the “Nachtstück” is the only piece from the opera that Eschenbach records with the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra, devoting the rest of the two hours of music to orchestral works and songs. It places Schreker’s most famous work in the context of his non-operatic catalog, which included commissions specifically for film and radio. The latter is represented with 1928’s “Kleine Suite,” whose contrapuntal layers sound a bit like the headier passages of “Der ferne Klang,” but are less texturally overburdened. Obsessed with the developments in recording technology, Schreker knew how to write for the microphones of his era, massaging his message to suit the medium. Still, with both the suite from “Klang” and the addition of orchestral songs in this album—including Matthias Goerne singing a sinewy, probing “Five Songs”—I’m left craving a full studio recording of the album’s namesake opera in Eschenbach’s hands.
The lesson of “Der ferne Klang” is that it’s counterintuitive to separate love from art. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a roundabout link between this plot (which was also written by Schreker, and feel free to indulge in your own armchair psychology) and the symbolism behind “Daphne,” in which Apollo crashes the Feast of Dionysus, disguised as a herdsman. In this way, Strauss did inherit Wagner’s mantle as the one to carry on the torch of Nietzsche’s influence. This is one of the many references Strauss made to the philosopher in his work, and while it’s not the most explicit, it does provide an interesting contrast to the bucolic score of “Daphne.” Underneath the silvery soprano and blazing tenor solos is a framework that Strauss borrowed from The Birth of Tragedy: Nietzsche’s dichotomy between Apollonian and Dionysian art. Strauss’s Apollo, however, abandons reason and structure in an attempt to enjoy what his half-brother Dionysus enjoyed as the god of delusion: pure, unbridled ecstasy and feeling. Tragedy is when the two came together, and Nietzsche was especially keen to make a case for the latter. “What changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by the magic of Dionysus!”
It’s this same combination of reason and passion that drives “Der ferne Klang.” Fritz contends with his own weary desert of culture, one that perhaps looks a bit like Castellucci’s tundra. Schreker contrasts the structure of his characters’ society against a score that rejects structure, the music at times threatening to stop in Dionysiac country. Of course, Nietzsche also devotes a good portion of The Birth of Tragedy to the Dionysiac frenzy of Wagner, whose free-flowing score for “Tristan und Isolde” was the ideal union between the Apollonian and Dionysian. Much like the pairing of Tristan and Isolde themselves, the union of these two elements, in Wagner’s hands, becomes a tragedy both precise in its structure and logic and fathomless in its emotions. The death of the two lovers defines the work, gives it meaning.
I was reminded of this while reading Jakub Hrůša’s note for “Liebestod,” an album born from the theme of death, traced across selections from Wagner’s “Tristan,” Strauss’s “Death and the Transfiguration,” and two selections from Mahler. Death is an end, but it’s not inherently tragic, Hrůša writes. Rather, it’s something “that gives our lives meaning.” The orchestral version of “Liebestod” is especially potent, rising primordially from low strings and clarinet (a mirror image, in some ways, to the prelude of “Daphne”) and gaining like a snowball as it courses downhill and the melody is passed between instruments. Whereas Isolde’s “Liebestod” is a moment of individual metamorphosis for the soprano, Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony’s rendition make death a collective experience, a metamorphosis for both the dying and the bereaved.
Mahler subverts Hrůša’s notion of death with the program note to his symphonic poem “Totenfeier,” asking what death itself means, rather than wondering about the meaning it confers. “At the grave of a beloved person. His struggle, his suffering and desire pass before the mind’s eye. Questions obtrude: What does Death mean? Is there a continuation?” Hrůša and the Bambergers are left to wander through this question, navigating its negative spaces between meaning and nothingness, between suffering and desire. Shades of “Götterdämmerung” blend with notes of the composer’s First Symphony (which he premiered the same year he started working on “Totenfeier”). The effect was more successful for some than others—“Compared with this, ‘Tristan’ is a Haydn symphony,” Bülow said when he first heard the work.
By the time Mahler had reached his Fifth Symphony, Bülow had died. Mahler himself had come close to shuffling off his mortal coil earlier that year after a sudden-onset hemorrhage. That summer, he purchased a lakeside villa in the Austrian Alps where he saw to his health and started writing the Fifth. By the time he finished the symphony a year later, he had married Alma Schindler, who had ended her brief but passionate affair with Alexander Zemlinsky shortly before accepting Mahler’s proposal. “A beautiful, beautiful love was buried today,” she wrote in her diary. “Gustav, you have much to do in order to replace it.” By the time the work premiered in 1904, the couple had two daughters. It was a high time in Mahler’s life, but one that would soon plummet with the death of his first daughter in 1907, the subsequent breakdown of his marriage to Alma, and his continued failing health, resulting in his own death in 1911 (roughly a year before “Der ferne Klang” premiered in Frankfurt).
“He was at the pinnacle,” composer Rafael Payare adds in a recent NPR interview. “After that, everything started to turn. I mean, Mahler didn’t collapse, but even philosophically everything started to turn.” You can hear that turning begin in the first movement of the Fifth, with a continuation of the theme of his “Totenfeier.” The opening movement, dubbed the “Trauermarsch,” is dutifully dirge-like, with trumpets mirroring the first four-note structure of Beethoven’s own Fifth Symphony and the strings taking on a funereal melody. Writing this in March of 2023 feels a bit redundant or obvious after these first few bars took center stage in “TÁR” as the Everest-like peak that Cate Blanchett’s character attempts to scale throughout the film. Those first four notes are an idée fixe for Lydia, representing her own eventual undoing. (Though what we really need is a recreation of the scene in which Lydia tackles her replacement conductor for the Fifth from his podium with Alma taking down Gustav.)
This first movement, however, is just a fraction of the Fifth, even though it dominates the Mahlerian landscape of “TÁR.” We get some hints of the even more “Tristan”-like Adagietto (which Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony also cover on “Liebestod”), but the piece on the whole is a universe that expands to fill every emotional corner. Payare’s new recording of the work with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal covers all of those corners. The opening funeral march of trumpets, yes, but also that first movement’s bel canto-ified melodic lines that sound like something out of Verdi versus Wagner; the Dionysian storm of the second movement (rage in the face of reason); and the almost disorienting waltz of the third movement that comes back via klezmeric impulses in the fifth. It’s another form of death and transfiguration, more Faustian in its move from death back into life. Payare and the OSM balance both ends while creating an illuminating through line from the opening threnody to the final seconds of unabashed ebullience. ¶
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