Pittsburgh Festival Opera Opens 2019 Season With a Dazzling Performance of Strauss’ “The Love of Danae”

The Love of Danae (Die Liebe der Danae), an opera in three acts from the later years of Richard Strauss’ long and illustrious career, was presented last night as the opening performance of Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s 2019 offerings. As mentioned in our preview, the work continued the company’s commitment to performing Strauss rarities, but differed from past productions in that it opened – rather than closed – the Festival, was done in concert form rather than as a fully staged opera, and was sung in its original German language. It was not only the first time Danae was heard locally, but was one of the few times it’s been done by any opera company in the United States. The Love of Danae has a rather slim performance history, despite the fact that it contains some of Strauss’ most beautiful music. And, on a sad note, Danae brought to a close PFO’s plans for presenting Strauss’ lesser known works – at least for now.

The complex and phantasmagorical plot calls for rather daunting staging challenges. Danae, daughter of the bankrupt King Pollux, dreams of a wealthy husband who comes to her as a shower of golden rain. Royal envoys announce that Midas, with his golden touch, has arrived at the harbor intent on wooing Danae. She is attracted to a man she believes to be Midas’ servant, but, in true operatic identity bending style, he is actually Midas in disguise. They go to the harbor to meet Midas, who is actually the god Jupiter. Jupiter/Midas prepares to marry Danae but, fearing his current wife Juno, demands that Midas deputize him during the ceremony. Midas embraces Danae, and she is turned into a statue of gold. Jupiter claims the golden Danae as his own, but her voice calls hauntingly out for the mortal Midas, she reverts to human form, and the two lovers flee as Jupiter curses them with poverty. Midas, stripped of his “touch” and reduced to a donkey-driver, confesses his broken pact with Jupiter to Danae, and she proclaims that she loves him, not his gold. Jupiter pays off Pollux’s creditors and, realizing that he, too, loves Danae, makes a last attempt to win her heart. But she gives him a golden hair ornament, her last valuable possession, and the god accepts defeat before singing a magnificent farewell. Multiple characters require that they be disguised as bulls, swans and more. All this, of course, is rather a tall order to put on a stage, and was wisely avoided.

Readied in war ravaged Germany, The Love of Danae was first heard as a single dress rehearsal, attended by the composer, at Salzburg in August 1944. This event occurred only by special permission of the Nazis, since the failed assassination attempt on Hitler the previous month had enforced the closure of the Third Reich’s theaters. It was next staged in 1952 (after Strauss’ death), again in Salzburg. The opera was heard in London the following year, but didn’t reach America until 1964, when it was performed at the University of Southern California. Santa Fe Opera included it in two of its summer festivals in the 1980’s, and the Dresden Semperoper performed it three times in 2009. The Bard SummerScape Festival mounted a production of the opera in 2011, as did Salzburg in 2016 (this performance is available on YouTube). Pittsburgh has now been added to the short list of cities to have heard the opera in any form, although commercial recordings are available for all to hear.

Friday night’s performance came closer to being a semi-staged production rather than a concert. Scenery was absent, and costumes were minimalistic, but the main cast acted as well as sang their parts, and the most obvious suggestions of a concert were that the large ensemble that sang the brief choral parts were dressed in basic black and carried their music in binders, and the orchestra was in plain view on the stage. Whatever category the staging fell into, it was an impressive night of singing, since PFO proved once again that the quantity and quality of its performing vocal talent remains on a consistently high level. Conductor Benjamin Makino faced the challenge of guiding the instrumentalists through the very difficult and continually flowing score, prepared and rehearsed for but a single performance. There were rough spots in the playing (quite a few, actually), but Strauss’ distinctive sound was in the air just the same.

The opera calls for a large cast, but the characters of Danae, Jupiter and Midas carry most of the singing. Meghan DeWald, always an impressive soprano, positively glowed as Danae. Her voice is well placed in all registers, and has both the warmth and steely edge so necessary in Strauss’ music. She dazzled the eye, and poured out glorious tone quite thrillingly. Ryan Milstead, as Jupiter, was in fine form, and his warm and powerful baritone provided some of the best singing of the evening. Kevin Ray, as Midas, sang well for the most part, though a few passages took him beyond his comfort zone; but Strauss can always be counted on to put

Megan DeWald and Kevin Ray

tenors through their paces to an almost punishing degree. All three were at their very best in the third, final act, and there is no doubt that the most beautiful music of the entire opera is saved for the end. The orchestra also did its best playing in the interlude that divides this last act in half.

Both Robert Chafin (Pollux) and Brendan Sliger (Mercury) seemed to be having a rollicking good time, and sang their roles as well as they acted them. Melissa McCann (Xanthe) made a favorable impression in her Act I scene with Danae. Hannah Brammer (Queen Semele), Courtney Milstead (Queen Europa), Rebecca Sacks (Queen Alkmene) and Molly Burke (Queen Leda) were an engaging and tuneful ensemble that made the listener wish the composer had given them more to do. Much of the same may be said of John Park, Matthew Brooks, Chris Curcuruto and Andrew Potter as the four Kings, and Mitch Fitzdaniel, Marcus Simmons, Benjamin Strong and Joseph Baunoch as the four Guards.

If you weren’t in the audience last night, you missed a rare treat that won’t be repeated. The gathering in the Falk Auditorium was large, but every seat should have been filled. For a calendar of upcoming events, full production details, tickets and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera. It can’t be stressed enough that this company is an excellent organization that deserves capacity patronage.

Allow some extra time at upcoming PFO performances this summer to take in the exhibition of art works from the private collection of local Cuban-born artist Julian Gil. The Energy of Life: In memory of a life well-lived is presented as a tribute to the Festival’s late Board Chairman and Gil’s husband, Dr. Jerry Clack, who passed away earlier this year. For the remainder of the Festival, original paintings by Gil will be displayed on the lower level of Winchester Thurston for patrons to view and/or purchase – with all proceeds benefiting PFO. Of these significant pieces from Gil’s private collection, six of the paintings impressionistically represent operas in the 2019 season. Jonathan Eaton, Artistic Director, delivered a touching tribute to Dr. Clack before last night’s performance began.

The Artistic Team for The Love of Danae

Conductor, Benjamin Makino; Concert Director, Rose Freeman; Costume Coordinator, Autumn Capocci; Lighting Design, Bob and Madeleine Steineck; Assistant Conductor/Chorus Master, Joseph Bozich; Rehearsal Pianist, Tingting Yao; Stage Manager, Katy Click; Assistant Stage Managers, Lauren Krohn and Layne Preston

Photography – Victoria Bails

 

A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.



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