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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Daphne

Erin Wall as Daphne, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2007
Richard Strauss’s late opera Daphne (last reviewed by Ionarts in concert performance and recording with Renée Fleming two years ago) begins simply with a gentle theme stated by the oboe and winds that binds together this single-act work. The new production by director Mark Lamos at Santa Fe Opera features staging that is simple yet effective: a laurel tree centered on stage, a few rocks, and shepherds featuring actual sheep. Cupid, having been mocked by Apollo for his skills as an archer, fired two arrows, one blunt and lead-tipped that struck Daphne (Erin Wall, the artist formerly known as Canadienne), causing her rejection of all things romantic. Finding love in nature, Daphne’s voice (her body camouflaged within the laurel tree) joins the chorus of shepherds in their farewell to the day – also a literal experience for the audience, due to the dusk enveloping the magical New Mexican landscape, visible from the open-air theater.

Other Articles:

Into the Woods (Out West Arts, August 9)

Scott Cantrell, Santa Fe production of Strauss' 'Daphne' a garden of delights (Dallas Morning News, August 4)

Scott Cantrell, 'Daphne' soprano Erin Wall hopes for more Strauss operas (Dallas Morning News, August 4)

Alicia Solomon, 'Daphne' showcases strong singers (Los Alamos Monitor, July 19)

John Stege, Up Against the Wall (Santa Fe Reporter, July 18)

Craig Smith, Musical high points but some directorial lows in 'Daphne' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 15)
Apollo, the recipient of Cupid’s other arrow -- sharp and gold-tipped -- interrupts the preparations for the evening’s Dionysian feast, disguised as a mortal herdsman. Daphne, after rejecting shepherd Leukippos (Garrett Sorenson) and his flute playing, is urged to learn to love by her concerned mother, Gaea (Meredith Arwady). Filled with insatiable lust triggered by the golden arrow, Apollo succeeds in seducing Daphne with a kiss. However, Strauss underpins this kiss with tonal ambiguity by having the orchestra wander out of key, conveying Daphne’s mistrust of passion. Apollo later interrupts the Dionysian feast, a care-free tradition of wine and mating of young couples, by revealing himself as a god and, with an arrow, striking down Leukippos, who had returned cross-dressed in disguise still as Daphne’s suitor. Daphne proclaims, “I have been twice deceived,” and the opening theme is heard over dissonant muted trumpets at Leukippos’s last words: “Companion [Daphne], I have dared to love you, and was struck down by a God.”

Daphne’s calls for help to her friends and brothers in nature are met with Apollo’s opportunistic reply that he is of nature as the god of light. Though true, the aggressive, god-like motif given to Apollo by Strauss contrasts greatly to that of the gentle opening theme portraying nature, although they both comprise eight notes and are similar in rhythmical construction of two notes, triplet, and tail. Apollo then asks forgiveness from Dionysius for killing Leukippos and ruining his feast, and Zeus, for intruding on his creation, Earth.

Meredith Arwady, Matthew Best, and male chorus, Daphne, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2007
Apollo’s request to transform Daphne into an immortal laurel tree is met by chromatic instability that is gradually resolved by the growth of branches literally from the stage while Daphne is again camouflaged as one with the tree while singing “wind, play among my leaves.” The opera ends with Daphne lovingly singing the opening theme on an ‘ah’ vowel leading it in canon with the oboe – thus depicting her new role as a god of nature – in a texture of lightly shimmering violin clusters and harp notes. One never wanted this period of tonal solidity to end.

A regional connection to the profound worship of nature found in Daphne may be found in the Taos Pueblo’s 64-year legal battle against the government for 48,000 acres of mountain land taken in 1906 to become part of the National Forest system. The Native American tribe finally won the suit in 1970 on religious grounds due to the importance of Blue Lake, a site of sacred importance to religious rites that off-limits to non-members.

Erin Wall surrounded by Bacchic dancers, Daphne, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2007
Soprano Erin Wall became one with her character and showed no signs of fatigue in Daphne’s challenging role while always projecting well beyond the orchestra. Tenor Garrett Sorenson (Leukippos) sang with passion and fire, whereas tenor Scott MacAllister was a convincing Apollo, although seeming to struggle to project over the orchestra consistently. Contralto Meredith Arwady (full disclosure: we went to school together) best focused musical energy to herself by forcing the orchestra to follow her phrasing and breathe with her deep, slow breaths. The unique depth of Arwady’s voice was extended with great evenness through her upper range, which gave a sense of musical and dramatic maturity. Bass Matthew Best’s strong voice provided character to the role of Daphne’s father, Peneios, while veteran Santa Fe conductor Kenneth Montgomery led the orchestra and capable chorus with care and trusting authority.

Tickets appear to be available for the final two performances of Daphne on August 8 and 17.

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