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Ich liebe Dich, Daphne—Extreme Strauss at the Kennedy Center

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Palazzo BarberiniEike Wilm Schulte is not likely to have been known to many of the audience members who packed the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall for Strauss’s Daphne Tuesday night. But he was the most outstanding and impressive singer in the performance that came with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra and Renée Fleming to Washington on the last leg of a U.S. mini-tour.

Mr. Schulte was the first shepherd – the largest of the minor roles in the opera – and he made the most of it. Clarity, diction, volume, and richness of sound were all most impressive and made a few of his colleagues (some of them singing admittedly far more difficult roles) look pale in comparison. ‘La Fleming’ herself impressed on the account of her very ability to navigate the cliffs of this treacherous role. The stamina and seeming ease with which she mastered even the longest and most fiendish arias, too, were amazing. It must have helped that she enjoyed herself on stage during the performance – “for the first time ever” as she mentioned after the concert. Perhaps it was the knowledge that this was the very last performance she would ever give of this work that took away some of the tension and pressure. Her mannerisms were not entirely missing, but they rarely disturbed the enjoyment of this very rarely heard delight.

There is little point in mentioning diction or pronunciation with any of the main characters. Their vocal lines lie in such extremes of the vocal registers that the most perfectly enunciating native speaker could not be understood. I tried and failed on many instances – despite reading along from the libretto.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Renee Fleming's Burnished 'Daphne' (Washington Post, October 20)

Charles T. Downey, Renée Fleming at the Kennedy Center (DCist, October 19)

Anthony Tommasini, Soprano Taking Chances as a Feisty Wood Nymph (New York Times, October 17)

Anne Midgette, Unsingable Maybe, Yet 'Daphne' Blooms (New York Times, October 14

Lawrence B. Johnson, Soprano Renee Fleming is fit for the gods (Detroit News, October 13)

Susan Barnes, Fleming, Bychkov and company offer stunning concert revival of 'Daphne' (Ann Arbor News, October 14)
I didn’t recognize Jon Fredric West from four years ago in Munich’s Tristan – he seems half the man he used to be, half the hair, none of the beard – and the face that once looked like the flat death-mask of Agamemnon was perfectly three-dimensional. His tone, however, was the same still. Now emitting from an almost smallish tenor, it can be huge. Not always flawless or particularly smooth, but given the demands of the role he performed amiably. The advice to singers must always be not to push the voice – not even in Wagner. But sometimes – in Daphne for example, live, on stage, you gotta push. And push he did, and if it wasn’t pretty he still got an “A” for effort. (Fritz Wunderlich James King manages the role with incredulous, perverse ease on the Böhm recording, and Johan Botha manages surprisingly well on the new Decca recording with Fleming.)

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R.Strauss, Daphne,
Bychkov / WDR SO Cologne / Fleming, Larsson, Wilm-Schulte, Botha et al.

Anna Larsson as Gaea was wonderful. Complete control of her instrument from the lowest to the highest notes, as well as an impressive stage presence (in a concert performance you may well equate that with “very good looks”) made her appearances in the work highlights. In the most minor of major roles, Robert Holl did a fine job as Peneios and was much appreciated by the audience. He sang meticulously, but I found the voice could have used more volume. Roberto Saccà was Leukippos and when Mr. West (as Apollo) killed him, I first thought it was due to jealousy about the voice, not Daphne.

The orchestra under Semyon Bychkov played very well for the most part. The string section and the first cellist deserve special mention. The wind and horn section, especially towards the end of this opera that makes outrageous demands not only on the singers but most of the players as well, had a few weak spots that were noticeable but could hardly have diminished the joy of partaking in what was clearly a very special event.