On Thursday I took Sarah (who is soooo cool, as is her new Baltimore Sun mystery column) to see New York City Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ Daphne, composed in 1938 but only just now receiving its New York stage premiere. Many of my critical colleagues have been unenthusiastic about Stephen Lawless’ direction and Ashley Martin-Davis’ set design, Alex Ross in particular, but I found both to be serviceable, if not what they should have been. I don’t think it’s excessively literal-minded, for example, to think that when you’re staging an opera that ends with a beautiful woman turning into a laurel tree, you ought to make some effort to suggest such a transformation! On the other hand, Elizabeth Futral was wonderful in the title role–she’s as good an actress as she is a singer, and I’ve never understood why she isn’t a full-fledged star–and George Manahan coaxed surprisingly impressive sounds out of New York City Opera’s inconsistent but well-intentioned pit orchestra.
I can see why Daphne has never found a secure place in the standard repertoire. The length is a bit on the awkward side (an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission), the myth-based plot a bit on the befuddling side. But Strauss’s score is a beauty, the gateway to the welcome depouillement of his middle-period style that made possible the radiantly autumnal lyricism of Metamorphosen and the Four Last Songs, and to see it enacted on stage, even in a problematic production, is the best way to get to know it.
Perhaps Daphne isn’t quite so awkward in length as it once seemed, at least for today’s clock-watching operagoers. The curtain went up at 7:30 and came down at 9:15, allowing plenty of time for a leisurely dinner after the show. (We had Indian food at Sapphire, which I also recommend.)
That’s short enough to make Daphne worth your while purely as a fling, and if you love late Strauss as much as I do, you obviously can’t afford to miss it.
Only one more performance, alas, this Sunday at 1:30. You know what to do.
(If you’ve never heard any of Richard Strauss’ later music, go here right now and order this CD. I promise you won’t be sorry.)