Why is it that whenever a classic is ‘updated’ it gets set during one of the world wars? How many Shakespearean Nazis have traipsed the boards in heavy-handed ‘political’ modernisations? Do we only recognise explorations of conflict if characters are dressed in solders uniforms?
When I heard Daphne, written in 1937, was being set in late 1930s Germany I thought they might be doing one of two things: using an aesthetic appropriate to Strauss’ time or treating the protagonist as a symbol of the persecuted with Apollo as a persecutor.
Let me explain. In the popular version of the myth, famously recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Daphne rejects the advances of Apollo who then pursue and tries to rape her. She is only saved when she is magically transformed into a laurel tree. With a (great) leap of imagination, we might see how this persecutor/persecuted theme works into the Nazi Germany setting.
The Arcola production does neither of these two things. In Strauss’/Arcola’s version, Apollo is not that bad (except when he shoots someone. With a bow and arrow. In the 30s). A bit creepy, but a lovely singer. It is the shepherds (now Nazi soldiers) who repeatedly humiliate a Jewish family in a sub-plot so contrived it’s like watching two different performances happening at once.
Effectively, the classical Bacchanal celebrations are now some sort of Nazi orgy where they shove the family around while drinking and rolling around on the floor.
On top of this, we have plot summaries (instead of surtitles to the German libretto) projected onto the wall that seem to be lifted from the Daphne/Strauss Wikipedia page. It goes on about shepherds and such like. The descriptions of each scene are completely at odds with what is happening on stage.
The redeeming feature is the cast, who, despite some unconvincing ‘childhood friends’ age gaps, is stellar. Daphne’s lament is particularly moving. All of the singers are top notch and we have some ROH alumni lighting up the stage. Although the theatre does not have ideal acoustics for opera there is something raw about hearing singers perform so powerfully in such an intimate space. I am surprised this opera is shown so rarely given how beautiful the music is. Despite being intended for an orchestra, the score adapts well to piano.
Do away with the 1930s setting and you have a beautiful, underrated opera, well sung with stunning silk ‘trees’ suspended from the ceiling. Daphne’s transformation is made all the more powerful as she smiles whilst being wrapped in barbed wire.
Keep the 30s theme and you have a performance at best awkward and misjudged, at worst offensive.
So basically, do away with the 30s Germany thing.