The Olympians particularly liked to disguise themselves in ways that enabled them to mingle undetected with humans – or at least pursue sexual escapades that would not prove fatal to the mortal partner involved. Randy old Zeus/Jupiter had a penchant for seducing or raping (or in the bowdlerized D’Aulaires version, “marrying”) mortals in the form of another human, a bull, a swan, an eagle and so on. Of these tales, perhaps the one that taxes the imagination most is that in which Danae – daughter of Pollux, king of Eos and eventual mother of the hero Perseus – is “visited” by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold coins. (Sounds a bit cold and uncomfortable, doesn’t it?)
Another well-known Greek transformation myth involving gold is that of King Midas. In one version of the story he is the son of the Phrygian goddess Cybele and a king named Gordias. In another, he is the son of a peasant named Gordios, and is acclaimed king when he fulfills a prophecy by arriving in a particular spot at a particular time in a wagon (the cord binding the wagon’s yoke being traditionally regarded as the Gordian Knot famously undone by Alexander the Great). Whatever his pedigree, King Midas gets on the good side of Dionysus/Bacchus by nursing the wine-god’s foster father, the satyr Silenus, through a rip-roaring ten-day hangover. Bacchus gratefully grants Midas a wish, and the foolish king asks for the power to turn everything that he touches into gold. It doesn’t take long, of course, for the “What was I thinking?” moment to set in, and eventually Bacchus accedes to Midas’ pleas to reverse the spell so that the king can enjoy his meals once more.
In Ovid’s version, the chastened Midas renounces the pomp and wealth of court and flees to the countryside to become a follower of Pan, only to get in yet more trouble with the gods when he votes for Pan’s piping over Apollo’s lute-playing in a sort of classical precursor to American Idol. The miffed god of music transforms Midas’ ears into those of a donkey to advertise the ex-king’s lousy tastes.
It remains to be seen if a set of ass’s ears is part of the costumery required for Richard Strauss’s odd amalgamation of the Danae and Midas myths, Die Liebe der Danae, which is about to be revived as part of this year’s Bard SummerScape festival. The opera’s librettists, Joseph Gregor and Hugo Hofmannsthal, took great liberties with the original stories; but after all, metamorphosis has long been regarded as fair game in any treatment of such classical themes. The hyperinflationary late-1930s Germany, in which Strauss was composing the opera while Hitler was consolidating his control, must have presented an irresistible temptation to play around with the metaphors of the inedibility of money, the hubris of power and the dangers of getting what you wish for.
In Die Liebe der Danae, the shower of gold itself becomes a bit of an anticlimactic MacGuffin: a parting gift from the rejected suitor Jupiter to pay off the creditors who are hounding Danae’s father Pollux. Midas himself is portrayed as a former donkey-cart-driver-turned-king who wins the heart of the princess while disguising himself as a commoner, while Jupiter, disguised as the tycoon Midas, fails to win her favor. Poor Danae has to get metamorphosed into a golden statue and back again before it all gets sorted out. Sound a bit confusing? Perhaps; but the mixing of metaphors and rearrangement of archetypes constitute a lot of the building blocks of cutting-edge art.
Strauss’s art, in this case, turned out to be a bit too cutting-edge for the ascendant Nazi regime; Die Liebe der Danae only enjoyed one dress rehearsal before Goebbels shut down all the theaters in Germany as part of his “total war” response to the foiled assassination plot in 1944. The composer did not live to see a full public performance of this little-performed masterwork, but it is reported that at the dress rehearsal Strauss walked down to the edge of the orchestra pit to listen raptly to their rendition of the final scene, then “raised his hands in a gesture of gratitude and spoke to the orchestra in a voice choked with tears: ‘Perhaps we shall meet again in a better world.’”
Whether or not the times in which we’re living now constitute a “better world” is a matter of debate; but the verdict is already in on the question of whether this somewhat difficult-to-stage work is worth the effort to return to the standard operatic repertoire. According to Strauss 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.” And by all accounts, Bard’s Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra demonstrated that they already had the Golden Touch in 2000 when they revived the piece in a concert performance at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, captured in a much-praised recording on Telarc. Billboard described the event as Botstein’s “latest and perhaps most significant act of repertoire rehabilitation,” and Opera News wrote, “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.”
But the show running at Bard SummerScape from Friday, July 29 to Sunday, August 7 represents the first time that a fully staged production of Die Liebe der Danae will be seen in New York, ever. Director Kevin Newbury writes, “My design team and I were interested in highlighting how money has the power to transform everything as if by magic, including the heart. Nothing captivates our 21st-century attention like the cyclical process of a wealthy, powerful figure falling from grace and then rising again from the ashes.” One cannot help wondering whether the team behind this new production had some inside skinny on the current death spiral of the Rupert Murdoch media empire when they put this work on the SummerScape agenda. The themes of the opera should certainly stimulate some lively topical conversation on the way out of the Sosnoff Theater!
Meagan Miller will sing the role of Danae, alongside Carsten Wittmoser as Jupiter and Roger Honeywell as Midas. The opera’s five performances will be sung in the original German with English supertitles. It will be performed at 7 p.m. on two Fridays, July 29 and August 5, and at 3 p.m. on Sundays, July 31 and August 7 and on Wednesday, August 3. Leon Botstein will conduct, and also give a free Opera Talk at 1 p.m. before the July 31 performance. Tickets go for $30, $60, $70 and $90.
As usual, in addition to a full-length opera, Bard SummerScape will present an operetta this summer: Noël Coward’s chamber opera Bitter Sweet (1929). Besides directing its London and Broadway premieres, Coward wrote the music, book and lyrics for Bitter Sweet, 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.
Bitter Sweet combines lightness of tone with regretful nostalgia. 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.” Directing the new production is Michael Gieleta; the orchestral arrangements are by Jack Parton; and Bitter Sweet will be conducted by the Bard Music Festival’s director of choruses James Bagwell.
Bitter Sweet will have nine performances in Theater Two: August 4, 6 and 11 at 8 p.m., August 7 at 7 p.m. and August 5, 10, 12, 13 and 14 at 3 p.m. All tickets go for $55. At 5 p.m. before the August 7 performance, James Bagwell will give a free Opera Talk. 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.