Thursday, January 27, 2011

Premiere of Die Liebe der Danae in Berlin

Die Liebe der Danae/The Love of Danae, Deutsche Oper Berlin, January 23 2011

Conductor ..... Andrew Litton
Director ..... Kirsten Harms
Chorus master ..... William Spaulding

Jupiter ..... Mark Delavan
Merkur ..... Thomas Blondelle
Pollux ..... Burkhard Ulrich
Danae ..... Manuela Uhl
Xanthe ..... Hulkar Sabirova
Midas ..... Matthias Klink
Four Kings ..... Paul Kaufmann, Clemens Bieber, 
" ..... Nathan De’Shon Myers, Hyung-Wook Lee
Semele ..... Hila Fahima
Europa ..... Martina Welschenbach
Alkmene ..... Julia Benzinger
Leda ..... Katarina Bradic

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin

Even though this was not his last opera, poor Richard Strauss never saw The Love of Danae fully staged. To our days this remains one of the most rarely performed of his operas [OK there is Guntram too but that's so bad that I wouldn't even count it in.] Luckily Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) decided to complete their series of Strauss-rarities and unveiled a new production of Die Liebe der Danae last Sunday.
Two years ago the same house presented one of their best productions in years,  Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen), wonderfully crafted by Marco Arturo Marelli,  amazingly conducted by Andrew Litton, and with Laura Aikin & Ricarda Merbeth singing the main parts. That brilliance was unexpected: very often they present us the lesser known operas of some famous composers, announce them as unjustly forgotten masterpieces, and in the end we often realize that it would have been better if these operas were left in peace, forgotten... So, heading to DOB I tried not to expect much, but somewhere deep down I expected it to be comparable to The Egyptian Helen.

Now, to me Danae is musically far less appealing - not because it is less beautiful, but mostly because its first two acts sound like concocted leftovers from previous operas by Strauss. An important difference, however, is that Danae contains larger chorus parts, and since the DOB chorus is famous for its brilliance, the first two acts were musically pleasant anyway. The most wonderful element of this show is definitely its conductor, Andrew Litton, who demonstrated a rare mastery in almost analytically shaping up the Straussian sound. Like in The Egyptian Helen, he managed to give depth to the orchestra so that you could discern all the sound-patterns which --when combined-- give you that complex but soothly music [so Richard Strauss-ian.] Not less important is the fact that the orchestra was all the time perfectly in sync with singers without ever getting even close to drowning them, despite Litton's use of every opportunity to kick some extra decibels into interludes. That man is a great Straussian conductor!

If you say you see no big guns on the above cast list, then you do not know much about Manuela Uhl who is a superb Straussian soprano, whose voice beautifully matured over the past several years and became 'plain-er', chromatically richer,  and also bigger. She should be wonderful in the role of The Marschallin too.

It is always great to see a singer who can sing the role of Wotan doing one of the tricky Straussian roles. It requires more vocal flexibility and when it works, that power by which he can sing is definitely irresistible. That's how Mark Delavan sang the role of Jupiter in this production. Fantastic!

Compared to these two, a nicely sung Midas by Matthias Klink appeared somewhat small. A smaller but still a major role in this opera is that of Merkur, very well sung by Thomas Blondelle. Other smaller roles were very good too.

Less impressive side of the production is direction. Kirsten Harms is a mighty lady who managed to save DOB from the ax of local and federal authorities. She kept the house afloat, succeeded in organizing some brilliant shows to be created in that house, and make DOB back to the very top of European operatic horizon. Her own shows, however, are not my cup of tea. Yes, her recent Tannhäuser was downright bad, but her production of Elektra was fine. What about Danae?

Well, the first act started off wonderfully, with a bunch of creditors coming  to 'invade'  the house of  Pollux, and seize his numerous art objects - paintings and sculptures. The last thing to seize would be his piano, which they reverse and then that piano is pulled up towards the upper edge of the stage, and it will stay stuck up there until the end of the show. At first I thought it was supposed to suggest a key moment when we were entering the world of fantasies (everything goes upside down.) Wrong! With the return to reality in Act 3 the piano remained stuck to the ceiling. And so I'm still wondering what her point would be.  A sign of bad luck, a permanent danger that it may fall on your head? In any case I missed the point she was making (if there was any!) The rest of the show is pretty much narrative, which was fine with me since I've never seen this opera before. However,  several dramatically dead long moments were menacing to drag us to the edge of boredom.

Act-3 is the musical beauty on its own. Scenically the bared walls from the previous acts were made fall inwards and the action is happening on those ruins [Kirsten Harms later explained that she wanted to make a parallel with Germany after WW2. Far fetched? Yes, it is!] The chorus of impoverished people will appear and Jupiter will have an outburst of rage (add here a bunch of fake lightnings and lots, lots of steam... I mean a lot!) and he [Jupiter] eventually understands that love will be deeply human a feeling that he, as a God, will never be able to comprehend or experience... and so he bids farewell to the mankind. Sigh...

So, all in all, I was glad to see this Strauss, but it is not really an opera I would be thrilled to come back to any time soon. If you are in Berlin these days, do give it a shot: Litton, Uhl, Dalaven, and that chorus are definitely good reasons to see the show. And yes, Act 3 is a gem.

Since there is no synopsis on the Wikipedia-page of this opera, I attached below a well summarized synopsis from the leaflet we were given at DOB.

The production photos are all ©DOB:

What happened before:
Jupiter, the Father of the Gods, has fallen in love with the young Danae, daughter of Pollux, King of Eos. In order to avoid being found out by his jealous wife Juno, he devises a stratagem, as has already happened several times before.
He makes a pact with the poor donkey herd Midas, in which Midas, if he helps Jupiter to attain his desire, will be rewarded with the talent of turning everything which he touches into gold. In return, Jupiter expects Midas to lend him his form; Midas has to play the role of the messenger Chrystopher. If Juno turns up unexpectedly, Jupiter can resume his own form at any time. Condition to Midas: he is by no means allowed to try and win Danae's love for himself.
The wealth accumulated through his talent of turning objects into gold quickly makes Midas a famous man, and he is crowned king of Lydia.

First Act
Pollux, who loves magnificence but is bankrupt, is being pursued by his creditors. He dreams of his daughter Danae making a rich marriage, and tries to soothe his creditors with this promise.
Danae dreams of a golden rain which falls into her lap, and rhapsodizes about it to her servant Xanthe.
Pollux' nephews, who were away with their wives looking for suitors for Danae, return with gifts from the richest man in the world: along with a golden portrait of Danae, they bring a bough which Midas has turned into gold. The court and creditors succumb to a gold frenzy.
Midas is expected -- but his messenger Chrystopher appears instead. He brings Danae a golden robe of honor. She falls in love with him, and he too is unable to resist his feelings for her: the feelings of the richest man in the world would be inconstant, but despite his evil secret, Chrystopher's feelings would last forever.
Jupiter, disguised as Midas, enters with great pomp and is received ceremonially. Danae recognizes this supposed "Midas" as the originator of her dream of golden rain, and falls down in a faint.

Second Act
The nuptial chamber is ready for the wedding night; Semele, Europa, Alkmene and Leda, who were formerly Jupiter's lovers are now the wives of Pollux' nephews, see through Jupiter's Midas disguise. Their jealousy is aroused as they hear how Jupiter describes his feelings for Danae as much deeper. Jupiter is suspicious of the tremendous impression that Midas as Chrystopher has obviously made on Danae.
As Danae approaches the bridal chamber, Jupiter disappears -- not without reminding Midas of the pact: should he break it, the god will transform him back to the poor donkey herd which formerly he was. In his anger, he also transforms Midas' talent into a curse.
Midas puts on Jupiter's clothing. Shortly afterwards, Danae and Midas are alone for the first time. They admit their love for each other, until Midas finally forgets himself and embraces her with a kiss. With a roll of thunder, Danae becomes solid gold.
Angry but certain of victory, Jupiter requests Danae to decide in favor of one of the two men, for the lord of her dreans or for the poor donkey herd Midas. Danae declares her love for Midas. Glowering, the god curses them to eternal life.

Third Act
The dream is over. Danae and Midas awake from a deep sleep. Forsaken by Jupiter's favor, Midas is again poor. He tells Danae of the pact with Jupiter. Danae and Midas move on.
Mercury visits Jupiter, who is becoming increasingly pensive and melancholy, and irritates him by telling him of the Olympian gods' amusement about Jupiter's unsuccessful adventure.
The four queens then enter and fawn on Jupiter. As he finally gets rid of them, Pollux comes with his creditors and hurls wild reproaches at "Midas". Jupiter frees himself from them by giving them money. Afterwards, Mercury convinces Jupiter to carry on the adventure with Danae.
Danae, who in her poverty is experiencing the dream of her real happiness, is visited by Jupiter, who again appears to her as Midas did formerly and pretends to be a customer. Danae invites him to stay; she praises that god who bestowed the happiness of realization in poverty. In order to make a gift to her guest, she parts with the last of her remaining gold.
Jupiter has to realize that as a god, he can never experience that intangible gift of true human love which he has created; leaving his fatherly blessings, he says farewell to mankind forever.
Danae looks forward with joy to Midas' return.

The following curtain call pics are mine:

Semele, Europa, Alkmene, and Leda

Hulkar Sabirova, Burkhard Ulrich, and Thomas Blondelle

Matthias Klink, Kirtsen Harms, and Manuela Uhl

Andrew Litton and Mark Delavan

and finally the pics after the premiere:

Kirsten Harms

Andrew Litton and William Spaulding

Manuela Uhl

Matthias Klink and Mark Delavan

Since there is no video trailer, to get a (vague!) idea about this music listen to Leontyne Price singing Danae [if you can factor out the technical oldness of this recording!]

A few days prior to my trip to Berlin I've thrown this recording on my iPod and I'm glad to recommend it.


  1. This production is due for release in the fall of 2011 on DVD (Arthaus Musik)

  2. Thanks for the heads-up. That was a clever decision. I didn't think that production was particularly well staged, but all the singers and the conductors were definitely brilliant. Good that this Strauss' opera finally gets its DVD release.