Pacific Opera Victoria

Strauss's Daphne

Dates 2007 at 20.00 Venue The Royal Theatre, Victoria, 805 Broughton Street, Victoria

Daphne Sookhyung Park Leukippos Kurt Lehmann Apollo Anthony Pulgram Peneios Brian McIntosh Gaea Rebecca Hass

Conductor Timothy Director Wim Trompert Designer Leslie Frankish Lighting Gerald King

Reviewer J H Stape

It has taken nearly seventy years Richard Strauss's Daphne (1938) to reach an opera stage in Canada, but Strauss's last opera receives a magnificent première production with this superbly sung, beautifully produced, and brilliantly directed performance, another triumph for Pacific Opera Victoria. Opera after opera, season after season, this company delivers sheer magic.

Based on the story from Ovid's Metamorphosis, Daphne focuses, like the composer's earlier Elektra and Salome, on a woman at odds with herself and deeply at odds with her culture and time. As ever at Victoria, the assembled cast of singing-actors, abetted by Wim Trompert's brilliant directorial hand and Timothy Vernon's inspired conducting, offered a compelling, and ultimately overwhelming, theatrical experience: I felt I was watching a dream.

This was, first of all, a production without even one weak link: from the minor roles to the major ones to the well-rehearsed and deftly used chorus the singing was uniformly excellent, the performers acting their hearts out in a production in which every detail was carefully thought out and aimed at overall effect.

In the punishing role of Daphne, on stage for almost the whole of opera's continuous 100-minute playing time, Sookhyung Park heartbreakingly suggested vulnerability and confusion. Her awkwardness in her community was convincingly suggested by a body language that conveyed increasing stress and pain, while her final transformation into a tree -- a refusal of humanity for a willing return to Nature -- was simply thrilling, shot through with pathos as the transcendent music surged, and she retreated into eternity and a world of silence.

The tug of war in her sprit, represented by her would-be human lover, Leukippos, well sung and deftly acted by Kurt Lehmann, and her would-be divine lover, the god Apollo, brilliantly essayed by the golden-voiced Anthony Pulgram, formed much of the opera's action on a stage dominated by a large tree whose branches and leaves hovered over the stage and into which Daphne eventually merged.

The roles of Gaea, Daphne's mother, sung by Rebecca Hass and Peneios, her father, taken by Brian McIntosh, were no less well cast, both singers in fine vocal and dramatic form. And the minor roles were well taken: the shepherds (particularly Eric Olsen whose voice is a beautiful instrument) and the maids imbued their work with drama.

As one has come to expect from Pacific Opera Victoria, the staging and direction were, well, just flawless. The sets and costumes, made in Victoria, could grace any operatic stage. In Wim Trompert's direction there was not a single false step: everything was concentrated with laser-like intensity upon theatrical impact achieved without distractions, without gimmickery, and with obvious and total respect for the music, the composer, and the intelligence of the audience.

Timothy Vernon's bold conception of the score was actualized in a performance from the Victoria Symphony that shimmered and glowed, the score's fine details and large moments unerringly urged out. And then there was the all-male chorus, which sang mightily, pouring out onto the stage and in the Dionysius festival scene making an indelible impact, as did the dancers who incarnated lustful rams ready to mate.

This production had the air of "festival opera": fine casting, musical and dramatic direction that was unstintingly intelligent, and superb sets and costumes with a whole company committed to an artistic vision of the very highest order. Luckily, for those unable to get to Victoria, this performance is being broadcast by CBC Radio on Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. Anyone with a serious interest opera would do well to keep an eye on that programme's upcoming schedule: you have an encounter to look forward to. Seeing this live was one of the experiences of a lifetime of opera-going.

© 2007 J H Stape