Hangler, Schager, Ernst, Maultsby, Anger / Welser-Möst
Remember the city's last notable concert presentation of Strauss, wherein Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic brought not only a triumphant account of Salome, but revelatory new soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin in the title role? Well, this show wasn't really like that. An excellent night at the opera? Yes. Instant stardom? Not for the soprano, anyway...
Regine Hangler isn't, mind you, bad: in fact she has just about the right voice for Daphne, a sort of oversized clearish lyric instrument that recalled the great middle-European Strauss singers of old. But if timbre and scale are near-ideal, the rest isn't so great. Perhaps recalling the not-so-good side of the old days, Hangler's pitch on high notes started off dicey, firmed up in the middle, and unfortunately started to wander again near the end. Bearable, but her lack of musical/theatrical presence made things drag. Obviously Joseph Gregor didn't give Daphne the libretto support Hofmannsthal or Clemens Krauss would elsewhere provide, but Strauss's heroines still have to be the most interesting figures on stage, whether by voice or person or (ideally) both. Hangler made a decent tree, but not a very inspiring feminine ideal.
Norbert Ernst (Leukippos) was similar - decent enough, but not particularly interesting. He did set up a very amusing contrast with the other tenor Andreas Schager (Apollo), however. Ernst, as the shepherd stuck in Daphne's friend zone, is sort of short and not physically preposessing... while Schager, tall and striking, actually looks the part of Apollo. Nevertheless it was Schager's voice - specifically the thrillingly firm, youthful-dramatic tone of its middle - and not his appearance that was the highlight of the show. (I see he's already done Tristan and the Twilight Siegfried, which seem way premature. Let's hope he gives us the Strauss and lighter-Wagner parts for a while.)
It turns out that a Daphne where the most compelling of the three leads is Apollo works pretty well, as the setup complements the dramatic arc. Apollo's arrival in the story galvanizes the action as Schager's arrival on stage galvanized the performance, and when he leaves, the tension of the piece relaxes into tranquil transfiguration. Welser-Möst did well shaping the overall arc of the piece, and with the skilful help of the visiting Cleveland Orchestra, the local Concert Chorale of New York, and lively supporting singers who outshone two out of three principals (mezzo Nancy Maultsby as Gaea and bass Ain Anger as Peneios were particularly notable) brought out the glorious colors and moods of Strauss's pastoral.
One can see both the sonic and story lineage in this piece go backward and forward in Strauss's ouvre... As far as the latter goes, compare the woman/god/man triangles in Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), where the man has departed beforehand and the god entirely wins Ariadne to death-become-life; in this piece (1937), where man and god directly compete though both are rebuffed, leading to the man's death, the woman's transformation (in neither death nor life), and the god's renunciation; and in Die Liebe der Danae (1940), where man and god collaborate but the woman chooses the man, prompting the god's renunciation and the mortals' happiness in poverty.