Die Liebe der Danae
Die Liebe der Danae, Richard Strauss, Deutsche Oper Berlin, April 2016. Director Kirsten Harms, Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Reviewed by Tony Cooper
German soprano, Manuela Uhl – who delivered a fine performance as Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, in Elektra – found herself back at Deutsche Oper within a couple of days to take on the demanding title-role of Die Liebe der Danae, the penultimate work in Strauss’ output of 15 operas which received its première at the Salzburg Festival in August 1952.
Arrangements were actually made for it to be staged in 1944 but following the July plot to assassinate Hitler, Joseph Goebbels closed all theatres within the Third Reich resulting in the opera not being allowed a public staging. He did permit a single dress rehearsal in Salzburg conducted by Clemens Krauss performed in the company of Strauss and an invited audience.
During the rehearsal Strauss walked down to the orchestral rail in order to listen closely to the beautiful final interlude in the last act which contains the opera’s finest music. Contemporary accounts tell that Strauss raised his hands in a gesture of gratitude and spoke to the orchestra in a voice choked with tears: ‘Perhaps we shall meet again in a better world.’ He was unable to say any more. Silent and deeply moved, everyone present remained still as he left the auditorium.
Set to a German libretto by Joseph Gregor, the opera – which could be considered a morality play in which true love triumphs over lust for material wealth – is based on Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Danae – The Marriage of Convenience written in 1920.
Sadly, it is not often performed nowadays. One reason seems to be the complexities of its stage directions but Kirsten Harms didn’t seem to encounter any such problems in this respect. She delivered a remarkable production using very few props but still made good use of Deutsche Oper’s large stage mainly with the movement of the opera’s extremely forceful 78-strong chorus who gave the bankrupt king, Pollux, a run for his money (no pun intended!) in the opening scene as outraged citizens wanting to know where he has squandered all the wealth of his kingdom. Following the second act they were treated to their own curtain-call and, deservedly, lapped up every second!
Bizarrely, one of the main props was a grand piano hoisted to the rafters and left hanging upside down for the rest of the opera. Was it meant to represent Pollux’ throne? If so, was the upturned piano meant to represent Pollux in complete disarray and being made to dance to a new tune while giving way to the new order? And in act II, Danae’s recollection of a dream being showered with golden rain was also confusing portrayed with reams of sheet music raining down upon her.
The central character of Danae is a taxing role and Manuela Uhl put in a brilliant and assertive performance. She harbours the right kind of voice for Strauss: strong, bright and forceful one minute, tender, lyrical and sonorous the next. She was suitably attired, too, looking regal in a ravishing gold-lamé dress with a long train which, surprisingly, didn’t hinder her stage movement.
Baritone Mark Delavan (Jupiter) and Belgian tenor Thomas Blondelle (Mercury) fitted their parts admirably well while American tenor, Raymond Very, Midas, who first appears in disguise as Chrysopher, the donkey-driver whose identity gets confusingly entwined with Jupiter, added a touch of humour to the overall proceedings while British tenor, Andrew Dickinson delivered an entertaining performance as king Pollux.
But distraught Pollux is relying on his daughter, Danae, to save the day. She dreams of a wealthy husband in terms of that shower of golden rain and royal envoys return with news that Midas, who can turn all things into gold, is coming to woo her.
The scene when Danae receives the stranger – confusingly, Midas in disguise as his own messenger – was beautifully portrayed. They seemed drawn to each other but slightly distant, too. As they proceed to the harbour to welcome the supposed king Midas, Jupiter sneaks into his place in pursuit of another female conquest and greets Danae instead.
As Jupiter prepares for his marriage to her he fears being found out by his wife Juno so he forces Midas to deputise for him at the ceremony. More confusion! But when Danae and Midas embrace, she’s turned into a golden statue (a magical moment!) and Jupiter claims her as his divine bride. Magic was everywhere in this production and it reappeared when Danae calls out to the mortal Midas for help. He duly obliges and she’s instantly returned to life. As the lovers disappear into the darkness, Jupiter throws his weight around conjuring up a storm and igniting a few explosives for good measure cursing Danae to a poverty-stricken life.
The opera, especially in the last act, has strong Wagnerian overtones. Strauss evidently equated the role of Jupiter with that of Wotan and we see him old and washed up and disillusioned with life in his last tête-à-tête with Danae who seems to harbour the same sadness and melancholy that confronted Brünnhilde at the end of Götterdämmerung.
In the end, Jupiter pays off Pollux’s creditors and realising that Danae’s far more than a passing amorous fancy he makes one last desperate attempt to win her back. But to no avail and as she gives him a hair-clasp, her last golden possession, he accepts his loss with a moving farewell. Danae then admits that it was her love for Midas rather than his golden cloak that really won her heart.
There was some fine singing from four queens – Semele (Nicole Haslett), Europa (Martina Welschenbach), Alkmene (Rebecca Jo loeb) and Leda (Katharina Peetz) – who could have jumped out of Das Rheingold especially when frolicking and teasing Jupiter to distraction on a satin-covered bed. And let’s not forget the four kings either: Paul Kaufmann, Clemens Bieber, Thomas Lehman and Alexei Botnarcluc. Their contribution was invaluable.
Overall, an excellent production and one sincerely hopes that it is kept in Deutsche Oper’s repertoire for the foreseeable future. It is worth a trip to Berlin just to see it.
Tony Cooper has been working across the field of publishing and the arts for a number of years writing mainly for Archant newspaper group based in his home city of Norwich. Nowadays, he focuses more on opera and classical music and he greatly admires the works of Richard Strauss and Wagner