All That Glitters
Avery Fisher Hall
Richard Strauss: Die Liebe der Danae
Lauren Flanigan (Danae), Lisa Saffer (Xanthe), Hugh Smith (Midas), William Lewis (Pollux), Peter Coleman-Wright (Jupiter)
Concert Chorale of New York
Gary Wedow (director), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor)
Richard Strauss had a very strange career. If one ranked his operatic output by greatness the list would read chronologically, with the best and earliest at the top and the worst and latest at the bottom. Die Liebe der Danae is right near the end and has languished in the obscurity befitting a work conceived and premiered inside the Nazi cocoon. There are certainly beautiful passages in this opera but overall it is a worn and tarnished work more suited for the archive than the concert stage. Only an intrepid explorer like Leon Botstein would even bother with such a ruminative piece of theatre but in doing so he presented at least a few nuggets of gold to the appreciative crowd at Lincoln Center yesterday afternoon.
Die Liebe is so little known that a brief outline of the plot is warranted. King Pollux is broke and offers his only asset, his lovely daughter Danae, as an enticement to gather riches. His strategy works as the prospect of Danae lures not only King Midas but also Jupiter (inexplicably not Zeus) as potential suitors. Jupiter comes disguised as Midas while Midas himself comes as a simple donkey driver. Four queens, all of whom have had Jupiter as a lover, unequivocally recommend the donkey driver as the better husband. Danae chooses him but, since he is really King Midas, as soon as they embrace she is turned into a golden statue. The two males vie for the love of the statue and she still chooses Midas. Jupiter, in his wrath, banishes the two to the desert with Danae once again human and Midas robbed of his golden touch. In the final scene, parodied brilliantly by Nabokov in Lolita, Jupiter comes to visit the now destitute Danae and sees that she is happy with her reduced state and common lover. As Midas approaches from his day's work, the opera ends happily with Danae exultantly singing out his name.
Botstein managed to breathe considerable life into this rather stiff and formal exercise by whipping his orchestral troops into a frenzy right from the opening music of the frantic creditors of Pollux, who despair of ever collecting anything in payment for their cash advances. The first of the main singers, Peter Coleman-Wright, was disappointing as Jupiter in the first act, not seeming either sufficiently regal or lustful. However the afternoon belonged to Lauren Flanigan whose extremely powerful voice filled the hall from the start and provided a contrast so great as to pale all of the other singers' performances to the point where the drama suffered, so focused were we all on this natural wonder. Ms. Flanigan navigated the difficult part with its almost impossible harmonic leaps with apparent ease and truly elicited empathy from the audience with her fine ability to project the powerlessness of a woman summarily treated as an object. She was also brilliant in the love duet with Midas (the most beautiful part of this forlorn piece), although Hugh Smith was drowned in her onslaught of vocalism. Also notable were Ms. Flanigan's attempts to stay in character even in a concert performance. She wore a golden cape in the first two acts but a simple peasant shawl for the third and she did not rise for her part whilst a statue so that her voice would come from a different acoustical space and seem somehow otherworldly as a result. In toto a brilliant performance perhaps a little too magnificent for this wan material. Coleman-Wright did well in his big number, however it became obvious to all that he had been saving himself for this one passage and this seemed rather precious but I am guessing that he only has so many pear-shaped notes available to him per performance.
Strauss had originally ended the opera after Act II but reconsidered because the characterization of Jupiter was so villainous. He went back to the Garmisch piano and wrote a third part designed to soften the god's image. The resulting concluding section is really tedious and contains none of the glow of the love duet, so the last hour is just a bore. The crowd seemed restless at this point, simply because there were only a few moments in this entire work worth preserving and they had already gone by. But such is concert life with Botstein and it is generally well worth the effort to ferret out the great music hidden in the chaff. Without question this is the finest performance that any of us will ever hear of this justifiably forgotten work and that in itself should be our golden reward.
Frederick L. Kirshnit