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2011 Bard SummerScape Festival Enriches Exploration of “Sibelius and His World” with NY’s First Fully-Staged Production of Richard Strauss’s Opera Die Liebe der Danae (July 29 – Aug 7) and New Production of Noël Cowards’s Operetta Bitter Sweet (Aug 4 – 14)
Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. – Reviving an important but rarely performed opera is one of the ways the Bard SummerScape festival paints a nuanced portrait of the past, and this year’s exploration of “Sibelius and His World” is no exception. This year, Bard presents the first fully-staged New York production of Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae, 1940), by Sibelius’s contemporary Richard Strauss. The production, starring soprano Meagan Miller, a grand finals winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, will be directed by dynamic young opera and theater director Kevin Newbury, both making SummerScape debuts. The opera’s five performances (July 29 & 31; August 3, 5, & 7) feature the festival’s resident American Symphony Orchestra and music director Leon Botstein, whose 2001 Telarc recording of the work won high praise; Botstein gives a free Opera Talk before the July 31 performance. This summer, Bard also offsets the gravitas with nine performances of Noël Coward’s nostalgic operetta Bitter Sweet (1929) from the creative team behind last year’s production, The Chocolate Soldier – conductor James Bagwell and arranger Jack Parton – with director Michael Gieleta (August 4–14).
Sibelius (1865-1957) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) were close contemporaries, whose life and work show noteworthy parallels. In selecting Die Liebe der Danae as its operatic centerpiece, Bard aims to investigate those similarities. Like Sibelius, Strauss excelled at painting nature in sound and the two manifested greater command of orchestral color than any other composers of the 20th century. Both flirted briefly with atonality in the wake of Schoenberg’s first expressionist experiments, Strauss with Salome and Elektra and Sibelius with his Fourth Symphony and Luonnotar. Both composers, moreover, abandoned it soon afterwards, Strauss re-embracing a more tonal musical language with Der Rosenkavalier and Sibelius with The Oceanides and the Fifth Symphony. In addition, both composers turned to the distant past, and in particular to myth, to deal with issues of the day. For Sibelius, the Kalevala provided the basis of his exploration of national identity and nationhood. And Strauss turned to the Greeks to explore love, human nature, and money.
Both supported each other’s work: it was Strauss who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the world premiere of Sibelius’s seminal violin concerto in 1905, while, for his part, the great Finn studied Strauss’s music in Germany, where he reported finding Salome’s instrumentation “masterly.”
If the two, while each achieving a distinctive and original voice, may be said to have resisted musical modernity, this conservatism extended also to politics: both Strauss and Sibelius, facing different pressures in their respective corners of Europe, made compromising concessions to the Nazis. When Finland allied herself with Germany against the Soviets, Sibelius – championed as a Nordic “Aryan” – became a favorite composer of the Third Reich, and his works received numerous performances. While harboring private doubts about the Nazis’ racial laws and policies, he took no public stand against them, and was assiduous in collecting German royalties.
Strauss, based in Berlin, tried to cooperate with the Nazi regime while maintaining a non-political stance, in order to promote his career and advocate for Jewish friends and relations, who included his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Although he has often been denounced as a Nazi stooge, in fact Strauss’s role was more complicated; it is telling that he privately considered Goebbels’s “Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honor,” while the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, in his turn, looked forward to having “no further need of this decadent neurotic.”
By contrast, the quintessentially English Noël Coward (1899-1973) had the advantage of living beyond Nazi rule, and his war record was impeccable; he volunteered for Britain’s Secret Service and ran its Parisian propaganda office. Yet Churchill’s government, while passionately anti-Fascist, was a Conservative one, and Coward – for all his scarcely-concealed homosexuality, subversive wit, and flamboyant personal style – remained, politically, a “man of the Right,” who considered “good old imperialism…a bloody sight wiser than all this woolly-headed, muddled ‘all men are equal’ humanitarianism.”
Artistically, too, he was content to work within existing forms and styles, and covered a surprising amount of ground. Besides winning success as an actor, singer, novelist, and painter, Coward directed such films as Brief Encounter, wrote plays like Blithe Spirit, and composed in a variety of styles, from songs like “Mad About the Boy” and the satirical “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” to the old-school operetta Bitter Sweet. Despite this foray into the classical realm, Coward was no musical highbrow, and although he was once introduced to Sibelius at the Finnish composer’s home, their meeting was a comedy of errors. The two shared no common language, and it took Coward time to realize that Sibelius, though courteous, had never heard of him. Mortified, he beat a hasty retreat, simultaneously declaring what an honor the encounter had been.
Bard’s Strauss and Coward revivals help play a pivotal part in reappraising Sibelius’s world, showing Finland in relation not only to the rest of Scandinavia but to Russia, Germany, and England as well, and reveal her leading composer for the cosmopolitan, well-travelled European he really was.
This year’s opera presentation is Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae, 1940), Strauss’s penultimate opera. Although the composer lived to see the work in dress rehearsal, its intended premiere was postponed by Goebbels’s declaration of “total war,” and the opera was first fully staged posthumously, in 1952. To this day, Danae has been only rarely performed, owing both to its considerable vocal demands and to the taint of its origins in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, connoisseurs of Strauss tend to have a special regard for the work. According to his biographer Michael Kennedy: “Die Liebe der Danae does not deserve its neglect. Its third act alone lifts it into the category of first-rank Strauss.”
For almost half a century, the only available recording of Danae was a radio broadcast of the 1952 premiere. This changed when Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra recorded the opera live at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2000. Billboard described the event as Botstein’s “latest and perhaps most significant act of repertoire rehabilitation,” remarking, “the New York press lavishly praised the performance.” Not surprisingly, then, the resulting Telarc CD set has been rapturously received. The Dallas Morning News observed: “This new recording…may be just the spark Strauss’s mythological fantasy has needed. Amazingly well sung, played, and recorded, it leaves no doubt of the work’s brilliance and beauty. …Leon Botstein conducts with plenty of urgency, but also a natural ebb and flow, and the orchestra plays as if having the time of its life.” Similarly, Opera News declared: “If this extraordinary recording of Strauss’s undervalued Die Liebe der Danae does not jolt opera companies into staging the work, the world will be a poorer place. …Under Botstein’s impassioned direction, there is a marvelous, seductive sweep to the opera, its momentum building securely to the great final scene. …The American Symphony Orchestra plays admirably.”
The libretto, written by Joseph Gregor from a scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, combines the legend of King Midas and the myth of Jupiter’s “golden rain” visitation on Princess Danae into a modern fable on the love of money and the power of love. Set in the doomed bankrupt nation Eos, it represents a wry comment on Germany’s own hyperinflation crisis in the last years of the Weimar Republic. As Botstein comments, the premiere suffered from bad timing, for Gregor’s is “a very ironic libretto … filled with a kind of contemporaneity which didn’t fit in the early ’50s.” Botstein adds: “Danae is actually one of Strauss’s masterpieces… his sort of swan song to the operatic form.”
The new production – the first to be fully staged in New York – will showcase the “beautiful Strauss-timbered soprano” (Oper in Wien) of Meagan Miller, who looks forward to making her Vienna State Opera debut as Strauss’s Daphne this fall. In the title role, Miller leads a strong cast, opposite “excellent” (Seattle Times) German baritone Carsten Wittmoser as Jupiter, and as Midas, Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell, who was “impressive” (New York Times) in New York City Opera’s own recent Daphne production. Set design is courtesy of renowned Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, a finalist in the World Trade Center design competition, and Mimi Lien, set designer for the acclaimed SummerScape 2010 production of “Judgment Day.” They will work under the “masterful stage direction” (Globe and Mail) of theater and opera director Kevin Newbury. The opera’s five performances (July 29 & 31; August 3, 5, & 7) will be sung in the original German with English supertitles, and conducted by music director Leon Botstein.
This season, in addition to a full-length opera, Bard SummerScape presents Noël Coward’s chamber opera Bitter Sweet (1929). Coward wrote the music, book, and lyrics for Bitter Sweet – besides directing its London and Broadway premieres – modeling it after Die Fledermaus in an attempt to revive old-style operetta. His most successful musical play, Bitter Sweet ran to nearly 700 London performances, and only closed after 159 in New York because of the Wall Street Crash. The work also inspired two film adaptations, including a 1940 MGM disaster that Coward described as “the vulgarist, dullest, vilest muck that I have ever seen in my life.” This was a great waste, for true to its name, Bitter Sweet combines a lightness of tone with the regretful nostalgia of its premise: an aging heiress, while advising a younger woman to marry for love, recalls her own youth, when she eloped with her music teacher, only to see him die at the hands of a jealous aristocrat. The whimsical, romantic score features such songs as “I’ll See You Again” and the reflective “If Love Were All.” English tenor Ian Bostridge singled out “the perfumed wistfulness of numbers…like “Zigeuner” or “If Only You Could Come With Me,” arguing: “Coward may not be Schubert, but he’s not a million miles away.”
Directing the new production is Michael Gieleta, whose recent credits include Smetana’s Hubicka for Wexford Festival Opera, which impressed the Stage as “flawlessly judged,” and London’s Sunday Times described as “devastatingly truthful staging.... As near to perfection as any I have attended.” The orchestral arrangements are by Jack Parton, a SummerScape veteran whose past successes include last season’s presentation of The Chocolate Soldier. Bitter Sweet will be conducted by Bard Music Festival’s Director of Choruses James Bagwell, whose leadership of The Chocolate Soldier “demonstrated élan” (Opera News). Bitter Sweet will have nine performances, August 4–14. Before the performance on August 7, Bagwell, who also serves as Music Director of the Collegiate Chorale, will give an Opera Talk.
Since the opening of the Fisher Center at Bard, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have been responsible for championing and restoring to the stage a growing number of important but long-neglected operas. All of these presentations and their remarkable stagings have been warmly received by audiences, not least last season’s The Distant Sound (Der ferne Klang) by Franz Schreker, which was selected as one of New York’s “Top Ten Classical Music Events of 2010”. As the magazine explained, “A hit in 1912, Schreker’s brilliantly florid opera has recently reemerged after a long dormancy and made its U.S. stage debut at Bard last summer in a performance good enough to whet the appetite for a major opera company’s attentions.” The New York Times agreed:
“Mr. Botstein did outstanding work in managing a score of daunting complexity and eloquent nuance. … [Director] Mr. Strassberger’s engagement was evident throughout, helping to underscore the most crucial lesson to be learned from the undertaking: Der ferne Klang is not merely a lavish curiosity worth a sidelong glance but a powerful, provocative work that richly deserves the committed advocacy it received here. All told, this presentation must surely number among Mr. Botstein’s most important achievements.”
Opera and operetta at SummerScape 2011
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae, 1940)
Libretto: Joseph Gregor
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Directed by Kevin Newbury
Set design by Rafael Viñoly and Mimi Lien
Danae: Meagan Miller
Jupiter: Carsten Wittmoser
Merkur: Jud Perry
Pollux: Dennis Petersen
Xanthe: Sarah Jane McMahon
Midas: Roger Honeywell
Semele: Aurora Perry
Europa: Camille Zamora
Alkmene: Jamie Van Eyck
July 29 and August 5 at 7 pm
July 31, and August 3 and 7 at 3 pm
Tickets: $30, $60, $70, $90
Opera Talk with Leon Botstein
July 31 at 1 pm
Free and open to the public
Noël Coward (1899-1973)
Bitter Sweet (1929)
Libretto: Noël Coward
Conducted by James Bagwell
Directed by Michael Gieleta
Arranged by Jack Parton
August 4, 6, and 11 at 8 pm
August 7 at 7 pm
August 5, 10, 12, 13, and 14 at 3 pm
Opera Talk with James Bagwell
August 7 at 5 pm
Free and open to the public
Bard SummerScape Ticket Information
For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.
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