Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Into the Woods

August 09, 2007

Erin Wall as Daphne and Garrett Sorenson as Leukippos
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007

Santa Fe Opera has a long tradition with the works of Richard Strauss, and most seasons include at least one his operas. This season is no exception, electing to present Daphne that had its American premiere with this very company in 1964. This is late Strauss, a work that premiered in 1938 in Dresden in all of its unapologetic romantic splendor in the face of Hitler’s Third Reich. It does seem odd that this adaptation of classical Greek mythology should come from someone once considered a bit of a radical in the historical context in which it was written. But rather than pore over the piece and its author in some fashionable Shostakovich-like manner to determine whether Strauss “meant it” or not, it is a piece that can, at times, be taken on its own terms and contains some wonderfully beautiful music.

Director Mark Lamos and scenic designer Allen Moyer have not opted for a challenging staging here, instead going the path of least resistance with something that could best be described as “Elizabethan Greek.” It creates the unusual effect of seeming classical in tone without having everyone dressed in togas, looking instead like they just stepped out of As You Like It. It’s not a bad idea, but given that the set consists only of a few trees placed dead center on the raked stage, there is not much to look at over the 105 minutes or so of the evening. Since the opera itself doesn’t contain a lot of dramatic elements, this is a somewhat risky strategy that doesn’t pay off.

Of course you don’t need much if your cast is stratospherically good, and while this grouping was strong, the minimalism was too much even for them. Erin Wall is cast as Daphne and once she warmed up, her tone was bright and ringing and the last 40 minutes or so she was quite remarkable. The men provided adequate support including Scott MacAllister’s Apollo and Garrett Sorenson’s Leukippos. A little more stage direction would have been helpful as well to avoid all the standing and delivering going on, but again, it could have been worse. Kenneth Montgomery led the orchestra in a richly textured turn through the score. Like Salome, there is a scene that more or less requires some dancing. And often as is the case with Salome the dancing is hard to pull off without it looking ridiculous. In Daphne the occasion is a festival in honor of Dionysus and as is typically the case, the chorus and dancers cavort around in Looney Tunes-inspired fashion for several minutes.

Still, it you haven’t seen this you probably should. Daphne is quite beautiful at times and is not performed all that frequently. Plus the team does get the big payoff of the opera night – watching as Daphne sings with joy over her transformation from human into tree, entering a natural world she feels more apart of then her own, is truly moving here. There is a single performance left on August 17.

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