Two men vie for one woman. Which did she choose?
If her choice was between words or music, the poet or composer, then you heard Capriccio by Richard Strauss. But if the choice is wealth and immortality, or love and mortality then it was Die Liebe der Danae, another late opera by Strauss, and like me, you heard it at Bard.
This opera is rarely performed. It is expensive. Choosing Die Liebe means choosing ten top-shelf singers, eight of whom have parts that require extremes range, power and endurance that few can handle. The conductor must choose between complex balances and focus elusive tonal goals that can quickly wander without constant attention. The production must choose how to handle an opera set as a mythological topic that can seem remote and detached.
But this performance, part of the 2011 Summerscape season presented in the Fischer Center for the Performing Arts at Bard, showed how creative collaboration is always the best of choices.
Kevin Newbury directed a modern urban setting of the myth. He used billboards atop dimensional images of skyscrapers to celebrate Danae's engagement to a man with the golden touch that she thought was Midas, but who was actually Jupiter in disguise. The images of Danae were shot with the glamour of perfume ads for a company called Au (the chemical symbol for gold). In the third act, the real Midas and Danae appeared in an old 1970s hatchback with working headlights. The car was an effective symbol of the new life that they had chosen, a life built from an escape without money or glamor, guided for the first time by their own sense of values.
Newbury's setting successfully translated the myth into modern speak.
The cast was young, and the performance felt young also...in all the right ways. While these young voices were not always able to reach every extreme in the score, they gave vibrant musical and dramatic portrayals and communicated the sense and relevance of each character with a sense of joy that is often tempered in veteran singers.
Meagan Miller developed a dimensional Danae. She was fluent enough to be credible among the rich and downhome enough to make the third scene seem very touching. Miller's voice was lasereque. What a great musician. She can manage any texture and can be understood across a wide spectrum of emotions.
Carsten Wittmoser was nothing short of amazing in the impossible role of Jupiter. No one can sing Jupiter. Not even Jupiter. Wittmoser has charm and was completely believable in the role. He gave the role a relaxed intensity that caught surprising shades in every register. Soon he will be able to handle everything in this role. Then stay out of his way.
Roger Honeywell has a colorful tenor voice, and he interacted with Miller with effective charisma. The richness of his singing made Danae's initial interest in him seem to flow from within the music itself.
Sarah Jane McMahon made Xanthe into a memorable character. McMahon balanced on the very edge between making Xanthe a mirror image of Danae and leading an independent but shared realization of their potential futures. McMahon's scorching high D-flat, echoed moments later by Danae culminated the second scene of act one.
The four goddesses, Aurora Sein Perry as Semele, Camille Zamora as Europa, Jamie Van Eyck as Alcmene, and Rebecca Ringle as Leda, balanced better as a quartet than any available recording. Their parts are harder than you would ever imagine, and few singers will take them one for fear of not being able to break out of the unified female quartet sound which is so characteristic of this opera. Each of these goddesses was able to transmit a distinctive personality, at just the right times, before rejoining the quartet sound.
Conductor Leon Botstein brought the musical development into the narrative by bringing clarity to the unfolding motives as they combine to form altered meanings. He shaped the music to allow play between wit and unfulfillable longing. This particular blend is the very essence of late Strauss.
Botstein's lengthy essay contained in the program booklet should be a model for how to engage a new classical music audience. It was filled with insightful observations, comparisons with other operatic repertoire, and new ways of thinking about the way Liebe der Danae unfolds. Musicians are famous for not wanting to communicate. Botstein does. Think of it as choosing a collaboration with an audience that is respected.