The Cheerful Mythology

By David Murray

Written for the concert Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83 (1940), performed on Jan 16, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Strauss was 74 when he began composing Die Liebe der Danae, his fourteenth opera. When he completed it two years later, in 1940, Germany was at war again. He was already persona non grata with the Nazi régime, which tolerated him only because of his international renown. There had been trouble with his eleventh opera, Die schweigsame Frau, because its librettist Stefan Zweig was Jewish; the twelfth, Friedenstag, gave offence by its strongly pacifist theme, and was banned throughout Germany after its first performances. The pastoral Daphne, designed to make a double bill with it, proved much too long for that purpose (most of Strauss’s operas came out longer than intended).

In short, the old composer was frustrated and unhappy. And he was still stuck with a dim librettist–Joseph Gregor, a fusty classical scholar whom Zweig had recommended to him before fleeing into exile. Strauss made endless complaints about Gregor’s dramaturgy and his leaden-footed lines. The scenario of Friedenstag had at least been Zweig’s work, but Strauss demanded radical changes in Gregor’s own Daphne text (and scrapped his original ending altogether). Then, after Gregor proposed a sober scenario for an opera about Danae, whom the lustful god Zeus used to visit in the form of a golden rain-shower, Strauss suddenly remembered another one by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose sudden death in 1929 had cancelled what should have been a lifelong partnership; and he ordered Gregor to develop that version instead. Always over-awed by the great man, Gregor was desperately eager to please.

The eventual result of their labours was odd. Strauss labelled it “cheerful mythology.” Fancifully and characteristically, Hofmannsthal had yoked two quite unrelated gold-legends together: the one about Daphne, and the one about King Midas and his unlucky touch. For an extra touch of sex-comedy, he brought in four of Zeus’s previous seducees, now middle-aged Queens: Leda, Semele, Europa and Alcmene, whom the god wooed variously in the shape of a swan, a cloud, a bull and as Alcmene’s own husband. Danae’s father is now a bankrupt King Pollux, beset by creditors on his island kingdom; and Midas is a poor donkey-driver, awarded the “golden touch” by Zeus–now Latinized as “Jupiter”–for helping him to acquire Danae. The central plot is new (though it recalls the Alcmene story): Midas agrees to woo Danae for Jupiter, pretending to be him -or rather, pretending to be Jupiter pretending to be a foreign king; but instead the two youngsters fall irresistibly in love. Trouble brews . . .

Just as with Die aegyptische Helena, the plan to write something light, almost operetta-ish was soon compromised by complications. Pollux and his creditors, the Queens and their Kings–and the naughty god Mercury–remain operetta-figures, with wittily suitable music; but Midas and Danae become gravely rapturous lovers, and Strauss’s heartfelt identification with the aging Jupiter raised him to the status of Wagner’s anguished Wotan (with unmistakable echoes of the Ring). Thus the score ranges disconcertingly between stylistic extremes, not unlike Ariadne auf Naxos. Strauss actually called the final interlude “Jupiter’s Renunciation,” and he surely thought of the long, mellow leavetaking-scene as his operatic swansong.

In fact Capriccio was still to come, and Strauss began writing it even before Danae was done; but initially he imagined it as only a jeu d’esprit, a brief comic treatise about words vs. music–not another full-scale opera at all. He was mistaken, of course. In the past twenty years Capriccio has become one of his most-performed operas, while Danae is all but forgotten. Originally he prescribed that Danae was not be to performed until at least two years after the end of the war; the conductor Clemens Krauss prevailed upon him to sanction a Salzburg premiere in 1944, to celebrate his 80th birthday, but it got only as far as the dress rehearsal–the Allied armies were advancing fast, and all festival performances were abruptly cancelled. While Strauss lived, he never agreed to another production. In 1952, three years after his death, Danae was staged at last. A recording of that performance is currently the only available recording of the opera.

A serious reassessment of Die Liebe der Danae is long overdue. The challenge of staging it properly has always seemed daunting: Danae is as long as the uncut Arabella (though not so long as Der Rosenkavalier), and it needs a large, expensive cast, a large orchestra and–at least in old-fashioned terms–a grand, costly production. Should the American Symphony’s concert-performance prompt some opera houses to consider staging the piece anew, and should they find producers who can hit the right tone for this rueful autumnal comedy, a major work by a composer in his late prime might be brought to life at last. It was Strauss himself, after all, who liked to call Danae his “oeuvre posthume.”