Cleveland Orchestra’s “Daphne” turns wooden at Lincoln Center Festival
It’s getting harder for music lovers to leave New York in the summer—where once July and August seemed almost bare, the summer festival firmament is becoming more crowded, and the quality of programming getting even stronger.
In recent years, the Lincoln Center Festival has presented many impressive evenings of music to go along with its strong offerings in theater and dance. Concerts tend to be remarkably well sold, and in terms of quality and scale they are just about on par with the presentations of major institutions during the regular season.
A betting critic would have guessed that a concert performance of Richard Strauss’s little-heard but superb one-act opera Daphne, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra and singers from the Vienna State Opera, among others, would stand out as a highlight of the summer.
But under Franz Welser-Möst Wednesday night, this romantic retelling of Greek myth seemed merely ordinary. Even his admirers will admit that Welser-Möst has a tendency to run hot-and-cold, and Wednesday saw the Austrian conductor in one of his blandly competent nights. The Cleveland Orchestra sounded as superb as ever (apart from some uncharacteristic oddities in the brass), and there were moments of intense beauty and excitement in their playing.
Most of these came in the loudest moments. When Welser-Möst needed to channel roaring power—as in the thunderstorm that the angry Apollo summons to disrupt the Dionysian feast—he came through with admirable verve. Otherwise, the performance seemed to unfold without much investment or variety, rolling along at a consistently reasonable pace.
Just as frustrating was the cast, whose principals struggled in varying degrees. Regine Hangler, the maiden of the title, labored through much of her part, in a role that—at least initially—ought to be the very embodiment of bucolic bliss. There was little sweetness, in her stage presence or in her vocal interpretation, which was dry and wooden. Several high notes were iffy, and on more than one occasion she backed off almost immediately as though she knew she wouldn’t be able to sustain the tone.
Norbert Ernst, who played Daphne’s admirer Leukippos, has a hard tenor voice, but his portrayal was earnest and likable, and his technique at least was solid. In the final, aching lines right before his death, Ernst was able to soften his tone, providing the best singing heard from any of the principals.
Andreas Schager, meanwhile shouted his way through the role of the Far-Striking Apollo, his pitch often barely discernible in what is an admittedly challenging part. Ain Anger displayed a booming, spacious voice as Daphne’s father Pheinos, though there were hints of the accuracy problems that often afflict basses with his vocal power. Nancy Maultsby as Gaea didn’t wobble in pitch, but was afflicted with a wide and unwieldy vibrato.
Most of the finest work in this performance came from the bench of ensemble singers sequestered on a platform behind and to the left of the orchestra. The two standouts of the cast, by far, were the sopranos Lauren Snouffer and Anya Matanovic, the two maids who taunt Leukippos and persuade him to disguise himself as a woman at the festival. Snouffer owns a lovely voice of crystalline focus, but shows not a hint of sharpness, remaining warm and liquid from top to bottom. Matanovic’s instrument is two shades darker, with an added whiff of smoke. Moreover, the two women had as much dramatic presence between them as the rest of the cast combined; to hear them sing duets all evening would have been a thrill.
The performance was well prepared as it should have been, since this same cast performed in a staged production at Severance Hall in May. The leads had vocal difficulties, but ensemble was generally good and the members of the Concert Chorale of New York were in fine voice. There was simply no spark in Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday night, as though the logistical effort of transporting the operation from Cleveland had fatigued the entire company. The fact that New York is unlikely to hear another performance of this unusual work anytime soon only sharpens the feeling of disappointment.
Daphne will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall. lincolncenterfestival.org.