31 Mar 2006


New recordings of complete operas lumber into view these days as the dinosaurs trod painfully into a dying sun in an animated depiction of their extinction.

Most releases tend to be live sets, with starry casts on the major labels, such as the recent Traviata with Villazon and Netrebko. Not long ago Decca offered Richard Strauss’s Daphne, a work rarely seen on stage, in a live recording with their biggest star, Renée Fleming, and an admirable cast. Semyon Bychkov, revitalizing his career, led the proceedings.

Now Dynamic, a small but wonderful label with an emphasis on rarer repertoire, dares toddle into the wake of Decca’s release with its own Daphne, another live recording, this from La Fenice in Venice, recorded in June 2005.

So is Strauss’s opera verging on a major revival? Probably not. At under 100 minutes, Daphne could have earned itself a place alongside the much earlier Elektra as a powerful reinterpretation of a Greek legend or myth, with its compact storytelling producing an exultant, and yes, cathartic climax. But Elektra, adapted from a great stage drama, feels contemporary, relevant, timeless. Daphne, despite much beauty and some intriguing touches, never comes together as a story with a basis in human experience. The myth overwhelms the humanity. Daphne, a committed tree-hugger, teases her admirer Leukippos; and, when she appears receptive to the attentions of the god Apollo, Leukippos provokes a quarrel that ends with the god slaying him. Daphne’s mournful reaction prompts Apollo to grant her immortality as a tree. Slender stuff, and staging a soprano becoming a tree hasn’t endeared the work to many directors.

Recordings may be the optimal way to enjoy the best of Strauss’s score, so another set can possess its own merits to justify its existence. This Dynamic version may not hit the starry heights of the Fleming one, but the cast performs with a consistent skill and commitment, and conductor Stefan Anton Reck does a fine job with the mixture of Straussian bravado and finely detailed lyricism.

The opera’s conclusion, an aria for Daphne in her transformation, evolving into an orchestral postlude, lifts the work into another realm. Strauss and the soprano voice, in ecstatic contemplation—that’s an unbeatable combination. June Anderson sings it beautifully, if without that extra plushness that Renée Fleming can offer.

Anderson’s two tenor co-workers, Roberto Sacca and Scott MacAllister, handle Strauss’s demands with some effort, but never so much as to mar the performance.

However, for both the Decca and Dynamic releases, one earlier live recording sets a standard neither can hope to match. Strauss dedicated the opera to conductor Karl Böhm, and in 1964 Deutsche Grammophon recorded the conductor leading Hilde Gueden, Fritz Wunderlich, and James King in a Vienna performance [DG 445 322-2]. Although cut by a few minutes, this performance offers the best possible presentation of Strauss’s intentions. The set will probably take some skillful Internet sleuthing to unearth, but the search will have been worth it.

For those who will want that set for its supremacy and another to know the entire score, either the Decca or this Dynamic set should serve quite well.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy