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Franz Welser-Möst & Cleveland Orchestra | Lincoln Center Festival

RICHARD STRAUS'S LATE CAREER DAPHNE came to Avery Fisher Hall on July 15 and 18 as part of a visit by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst. The venerable Ohio ensemble had played the curious “bucolic tragedy’”in a semi-staged presentation in its home base, Severance Hall, in May. That may have sharpened the performance’s dramatic focus, a quality that came and went in New York. Though Cori Ellison’s fine surtitles from City Opera’s 2004 mounting proved most helpful, they hadn’t been augmented with any stage directions to guide newbies through Daphne’s often arcane “Teutonic Hellenistic” plot. 

The Cleveland players demonstrated their excellence—save for the spread initial brass forays accompanying the libretto’s onstage cattle drive (don’t ask). But Welser-Möst tended to accent the bombast and decibels and ultimately failed to find the emotional core of this tricky work though there were some beautiful high-finish passages. Welser-Möst worked well with the orchestral soloists—there were sublime moments from the oboe, flute and harp—and with the well-prepared Concert Chorale of New York, but sometimes seemed less than responsive to problems encountered by his solo vocalists, particularly Andreas Schager, who started like gangbusters but soon enough ran into problems sustaining Apollo’s relentlessly high tessitura. Welser-Möst slowed down not a whit.

Still, the work comes around so rarely that hearing a high quality orchestral rendition, cast with non-starry but mostly highly capable singers, made for a pleasant and interesting evening. For this opera—as with Salome, Elektra, Intermezzo and Arabella—first you find your leading lady. As Daphne, Regine Hangler indeed proved a find, though not perhaps in a wide range of operatic roles. So far largely active in oratorio and character parts, she fielded a soprano somewhat lacking in color but tonally pure, largely accurate and able to float (with her, Welser-Möst seemed willing to hold down orchestral storms). Hangler’s modest demeanor accorded with Daphne’s resolute avoidance of the sexual maturity her family and society wish her to pursue. I was unconvinced she needed to evacuate the stage following for the final transformation scene: her offstage singing remained compellingly “present.”

Schager—notably tall and handsome, dramatically engaged and large of vocal format—garnered huge ovations—frankly beyond an evidently impactful singer’s desserts for this particular evening. More and more, audiences hear with their eyes. As his shepherd rival Leukippos, a less macho but still murderously high part, Norbert Ernst maintained high musical standard in accuracy, phrasing and dynamic variety with a somewhat dry but well-produced lyric tenor. Ain Anger, a cultivated bass too little heard in New York, made a substantive impression as Daphne’s father Peneios. Nancy Maultsby’s experience and musical intelligence could not compensate for the shortfall between the considerable contralto demands of his wife Gaea and her earnest but heavily vibratoed mezzo. 

The minor soloists were all at least satisfactory: mellow baritone Christopher Feigum—commendably off-book and thus expressively unhindered—stood out among the Four Shepherds. The Two Maids briefly get some of the opera’s most disarming music and have sometimes won glamorous casting (Edita Gruberová and Rita Streich number among Vienna’s First Maids). They had it here, with two excellent young stars of regional opera (Lauren Snouffer and Anya Matanovic), both a pleasure to hear solo and blending. —David Shengold 

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