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Obscure Strauss opera sparkles at Bard College

Written during World War II when the composer was in his 70s and never performed in his lifetime, Richard Strauss's "Die Liebe der Danae" was long dismissed as a lame effort by an aging genius whose inspiration was running dry.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Written during World War II when the composer was in his 70s and never performed in his lifetime, Richard Strauss's "Die Liebe der Danae" was long dismissed as a lame effort by an aging genius whose inspiration was running dry.

But the composer's next-to-last opera has also had its champions, none more fervent than Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra. Botstein, who is also president of Bard College, had already recorded the work, and on Friday night he brought it to Bard's SummerScape arts festival for what he calls its "first fully-staged New York production."

It turns out the champions were right. The performance made a persuasive case for the opera (whose title translates as "The Love of Danae") as a piece well worth staging, if not quite an unjustly neglected masterpiece.

From its agitated opening chords to its elegiac conclusion, the score contains long passages of gorgeous music — along with a fair share of tedious "note-spinning." And the whimsical mythological plot has some surprisingly effective dramatic moments, made all the more pointed in the wittily updated production by architect Rafael Vinoly and Mimi Lien.

Strauss and his librettist, Joseph Gregor, amalgamated two different myths into one: the story of King Midas, who turns everything he touches to gold, and the legend of Danae, who is impregnated by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold.

In the opera, Danae is the daughter of bankrupt King Pollux, whose only hope for financial salvation is to marry her off to Midas. But this Midas is really just a camel-driver who has been deputized by Jupiter to woo Danae on his behalf. When Midas and Danae fall in love, Jupiter is furious and condemns them to a life of poverty. Eventually, the god learns to accept that for all his power, he can never experience love as mortals do.

It's not such a stretch to see how themes like the pursuit of wealth at all costs versus the triumph of true love in humble surroundings resonate in 21st-century society.

In the Bard production, smoothly directed by Kevin Newbury, Pollux is a corporate mogul who tries to hide under his boardroom table from his creditors. Jupiter's ship arrives in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty faintly discernible in the background. Danae's picture is plastered on billboards advertising a brand of perfume called AU (the chemical symbol for gold). And she and Midas end up not in a hut in the Syrian desert but living in their car in the American West.

Botstein assembled a talented cast of singers who did valiant battle with Strauss' treacherous vocal writing. Meagan Miller, a soprano with a bright sound and impressive power, was Danae. She was able to scale the highest reaches of the role (including a final C-sharp), though sometimes her tone took on a hard, metallic sound. When not pushing for volume, she floated lovely soft high notes, even if once or twice she had trouble sustaining them.

As Midas, tenor Roger Honeywell sang his high-flying phrases ardently, though he seemed to be pressing his modest voice to its limits.

Baritone Carsten Wittmoser's voice isn't really big enough for the stentorian demands Strauss places on Jupiter, but to his credit he never let his tone turn coarse.

As King Pollux, tenor Dennis Petersen hurled out fierce high notes with flair. His four daughters-in-law, all former conquests of Jupiter, have large roles in this opera, and their voices blended nicely even as their antics became wearisome (Strauss' fault, not theirs). They were sopranos Aurora Sein Perry as Semele and Camille Zamora as Europa, and mezzo-sopranos Jamie Van Eyck as Alcmene and Rebecca Ringle as Leda.

The role of Xanthe, Danae's attendant, was sung with sparkle by soprano Sarah Jane McMahon. Her voice blended together bewitchingly with Miller's in their Act 1 duet, which echoes the great duet for sopranos in the composer's much-earlier "Arabella."

The orchestra played the difficult score extremely well under Botstein's persuasive baton.

As is often the case, Strauss saved the best for last. The final 30 minutes, starting with a brooding orchestral interlude and leading into a scene for Danae and Jupiter, show the composer at his most inspired. As the defeated god retreats to Mount Olympus, Danae comforts him with the gift of a golden comb from her hair — the last remnant of the riches she no longer wants. It's an image that resonates all the more for imagining Jupiter as a kind of stand-in for the composer himself.

There are four more performances through Aug. 7.