STRAUSS:  Die Liebe der Danae
Lauren Flanigan (Danae); Peter Coleman-Wright (Jupiter); Hugh Smith (Midas); William Lewis (Pollax); Lisa Saffer (Xanthe); Michael Hendrick (Merkur); Jane Jennings (Europa); Mary Phillips (Alkmene); Elisabeth Canis (Leda); Rodne Brown, James Archie Worley, William Berges, Richard Crist (Four Kings); American Symphony Orch/ Leon Botstein, cond.

TELARC CD 80570 (3 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT:  2:37:23
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Among other things, the Nazis (as well as Hofmannsthal's death) deprived Strauss of a decent librettist. A Jew, Stefan Zweig, Strauss's first choice as Hofmannsthal's successor, eventually had to flee and even while in Germany could not openly work for or receive credit from Strauss. Die Liebe der Danae, Strauss's penultimate opera, as a result suffered a difficult gestation. Strauss, grumblingly went to work with his latest librettist, a sycophantic Viennese art historian named Joseph Gregor, who had supplied the text for Strauss's Friedenstag (although Zweig conceived of the dramatic structure, Zweig's collaboration with Strauss effectively ended with Die schweigsame Frau). As Strauss authority Norman del Mar put it, Gregor was no Zweig, just as Zweig was no Hofmannsthal. Usually, Strauss treated Gregor with the same degree of disdain with which Hofmannsthal had treated Strauss. Gregor tried to interest Strauss in several libretti he had already written, but Strauss summarily rejected them all. The composer then found a sketch Hofmannsthal had sent him on the Danae legend, just after Die Frau ohne Schatten. Strauss, however, busy with his own theatrical projects at the time, expressed no interest. It took a posthumous publication of the text to bring to his attention what had apparently sat for decades in his desk drawer.

Casting about for something to do, Strauss decided the Hofmannsthal sketch was the best thing he was likely to see. He asked Gregor to turn it into a libretto. Gregor did his best, unfortunately, subjected himself to humiliation after humiliation from the composer, but in the end couldn't resolve the dramatic questions Hofmannsthal's treatment had left open. Strauss sought advice from several other sources (including the conductor Clemens Krauss and the Czech producer Lothar Wallenstein), even on occasion commanding Gregor to go to them with his hat in his hand. From Strauss's point of view, Gregor was so weak a dramatist and so hopeless a poet, that Strauss actually felt desperate enough to begin composing before the libretto was complete, trying to iron out problems through his music alone. When he started, he had little idea how the project would turn out.

It happens that Strauss, by sheer force of will, created a masterpiece. The libretto text is sometimes embarrassingly bad, but the music wins out. Many writers see it as a kind of continuation of the Hofmannsthal collaboration. On the other hand, Del Mar, author of the three-volume standard study of Strauss's music, unhesitatingly deems it one of the weakest of Strauss's fifteen full-length operas. I can't agree, but then I'm a sucker for the German poetic tradition of classical humanism -- Goethe, H–lderlin, and Hofmannsthal especially—and there's enough Hofmannsthal in Danae for me.

It was Hofmannsthal's idea to combine the Jupiter and Danae myth (where the god appears to Danae as a shower of gold) with the myth of Midas and his golden touch. King Pollux has squandered his kingdom's wealth, and the creditors are closing in. His only hope is to marry off his daughter Danae to somebody rich. Danae is perfectly agreeable. She thinks gold so important, at night she dreams about a shower of gold. Jupiter, in the guise of Midas, comes as a suitor. He sends his servant Chrysopher (literally, "gold-bearer") ahead to Danae as his emissary. Danae mistakes Chrysopher for her suitor, and Chrysopher has to tell her that he is not the glorious Midas, "only Chrysopher." Naturally, they fall in love, and Danae becomes torn. Chrysopher warns her that "Midas" will betray her.

The courtship goes on to the point of the marriage. Here, one of the opera's great inventions, a quartet of four queens—Europa, Alkmene, Semele, and Leda—all former lovers of Jupiter in disguise (he appeared to them as a bull, Alkmene's husband, a thundercloud, and a swan, respectively), decorate the bridal chamber. They recognize the god in disguise and greet him as their former lover. But they're longer in the tooth and less beautiful, and Jupiter has lost interest in them. He explains that he hopes Danae will become his one true love at last, and that he has had to pursue her as Midas to protect her from the anger of Hera, his wife (Gregor freely mixes Greek and Roman names). Resentful of Danae but hoping to win Jupiter back, the four queens agree to silence.

Now Jupiter warns Chrysopher not to interfere. It turns out, of course, that Chrysopher is the real Midas, who has made a deal with the god. He was a poor camel-driver. Jupiter offered him the Golden Touch to help win Danae. If Midas reveals his true self to Danae, he will find himself once again a poor camel-driver in the middle of the desert. Jupiter leaves Midas. Midas, alone in the bridal chamber, curses his "gift." Danae enters, confesses her love, falls into his arms, and is immediately turned into a statue of gold. Jupiter returns to remind Midas of their bargain. Jupiter claims Danae, but Midas persuades him that the choice should be the girl's. Jupiter offers essentially immortality and other perks of deity. Midas offers "the fate of all mortals" and love. From within the statue, they hear Danae calling Midas's name. An enraged Jupiter brings the girl back to life and condemns both lovers to a life of poverty in the depths of the desert.

The final twist of the plot comes about when Mercury persuades Jupiter that he might not yet be out of luck. Now that Danae, after some time, has had a taste of the poor life, she might be more amenable to sex with a god. Once again, Jupiter disguises himself, this time as an old Arab seeking shelter at Danae's hut. He sees Danae not only content, but happy. She recognizes the god, thanks him for his curse, and gives him her last item of value—a comb. Jupiter realizes he will never experience love as humans know it and leaves. The curtain comes down on Danae standing quietly and then calling out to her husband, Midas.

In an opera, the music counts most, and Strauss's music fascinates. My previous encounter was a "symphonic fragment" (probably made by Clemens Krauss) from the three-volume EMI Kempe superset, which failed to make much of a dent. In fact, it seemed rather pointless. Consequently, I wasn't prepared for the energy of the original drama. As in Wagnerian opera, the orchestra, rather than the text, carries on much of the drama through a system of leitmotivs associated with the principle characters and dramatic themes. Strauss, especially in the first act, fits the drama to a symphonic structure, thus lending a certain weight to the story. At this point in his long life, Strauss has amassed considerable theatrical experience, and yet the opera comes off as more experimental and daring than comfortable. For one thing, Strauss incorporates what is for him modern opera, especially elements of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny and Korngold's Tote Stadt. For example, the principle motives of the opera's first scene, associated with the horde of creditors, come right out of the opening of the Weill. There's also a little 5/4 march, signaling the arrival of Jupiter/Midas's ship. In addition, there's a parodistic element missing from most of Strauss's operas. The motive of the golden shower, for instance, seems to come right out of Saint-Saëns's Le Cygne (Jupiter, of course, appeared to Leda in the form of a swan). Del Mar points out little cribs at appropriate points from Lohengrin (more swans!) and Strauss's own Elektra. The idiom is still Strauss's own, but Strauss never stuck to one thing. At this point in his career, he falls more and more under the influence of Mozart, particularly as far as clarity of texture goes. Unlike, say, in the Symphonia Domestica, in Danae one actually hears all the counterpoint Strauss writes, as well as the voices. This may have resulted from practical matters—allowing the theater audience to hear the words—but Strauss did consciously choose Mozart as his model. Indeed, after one of the Salzburg rehearsals, Strauss asked a friend of his to walk him back to his hotel by way of Mozart's statue. A chamber-like quality in Strauss's writing becomes more and more pronounced as he gets older, and this tendency culminates in Capriccio, the Duett-Concertino, the oboe concerto, the second horn concerto, and Metamorphosen.

Strauss comes up with one incredible orchestral color after another. Indeed, the orchestra assumes a great deal of the dramatic burden, probably due to the weakness of Gregor's text. Not only did Gregor struggle with the simplest problems of the story (how does one handle the Midas touch or Jupiter disguised as Midas, for example?), but his poetry makes you cringe besides. It's always Strauss's music that convinces you. However, Strauss's operatic vocal writing goes beyond his usual cruelty. Indeed, the range of the baritone part of Jupiter approaches the Himalayan and actually poses huge casting problems. One reason why the opera may not often be performed is that you can't find a capable Jupiter. Clemens Krauss, the conductor most associated with the opera, "solved" this by transposing entire sections down a whole step, with a concomitant loss of brilliance in the orchestra. In the rare performances of this work, most producers follow Krauss. Without a score, I have no idea what Botstein has done. Peter Coleman-Wright as Jupiter seems to struggle here and there, but Strauss builds that struggle into the part. Furthermore, you hear it at dramatically appropriate moments.

This is, after all, a live performance—less the artifact of an extraordinary event than apparently the only way "new" opera gets recorded these days. Both singers and orchestra fall short of studio perfection (Laura Flanigan in particular almost hits the notes Strauss wrote), but they get the job done. They convince you that you listen to a very fine work indeed.

Telarc does a good job capturing the live sound. In fact, when the applause breaks in (at the end of each act), it kind of pulls you back to remind you that you're really out in the wild, so to speak.

S.G.S. (Aug. 2002)