Leon and Richard, Together Again
by Scott Baldinger
Bard president and American Symphony orchestra conductor Leon Botstein (above left, in 1975 at the age of 29) is also the numero uno champion of the 1940 opera Die Liebe der Danae, the gloriously coloristic but neglected work composed in Germany by Richard Strauss (above right, at about the same age, c. 1893).
Germany was not a great place to be in 1940. Due to his preeminence, Strauss was grudgingly tolerated by the Reich, and, consequently, viewed by its enemies as far too cozy with it. He also had a Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren to protect. The stress of his situation is reflected, I posit to Botstein in a telephone interview earlier this week, not in the brilliant score, but in the plot. Botstein, however, insists that the plot is “very simple….It’s about two men, one is King Midas and the other Jupiter, and a beautiful girl, Danae, whose father, King Pollus, is bankrupt and being pursued by creditors. The older of the two, Jupiter, covets the beautiful girl but he’s a god who has to take a human shape in order to court her….”
Botstein (right, in a more recent photograph) is being driven up the Taconic Parkway, and here the cell phone reception starts to go, as it always tends to at such pivotal moments. So the rest of the plot goes something like this: Jupiter pretends to Danae that he is King Midas. At the same time King Midas pretends to be someone else—his own messenger, a lowly minion clearly not paid well enough for Danae and her family’s needs. Danae falls for the real Midas pretending to be the poor one, but allows herself to get hornswoggled into marrying the faux Midas/god, who it turns out can’t actually be intimate with mortals under any circumstance, so he turns her into stone. Jupiter then feels remorse about this, turns her back into a human and lets her to run off with the real Midas, who then rains gold on her, allowing Danae to pay off her dad’s debts. Everyone is happy, except for Jupiter, who really just wants to be human.
See? Simple. What I do know is that Strauss’ score to Danae and Botstein’s pivotal 2001 recording of it for Telarc are marvelous; the grandly (perhaps a tad crazily) theatrical gist of the opera adds up to a cosmic comedy that, as Botstein says, “pokes fun at modern capitalism and the way in which greed gets in the way of our higher ambitions and desires”—a painfully relevant theme that will no doubt lend itself to a spectacular modern-dress mounting at Bard’s Fisher Center. The sets of the production that can be seen within Frank Gehry’s always mind-blowing theater are being designed by the noted architect Rafael Vinoly, who just completed a stretch of sleek eye candy for the college’s science and computer department.
“This is Strauss, abandoned by everyone, misunderstood and isolated, poking fun at myths and Wagnerian pretension, creating this bravura show of compositional elements that incorporate Wagner, Kurt Weill and the popular music of the time, but finally embracing a Mozartean universality,” Botstein says, once we reconnect. I reply that the mind games played on Danae by Jupiter and Midas remind me of the heartbreaking masquerades of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, just as the reception goes dead. Once again, we are victims of the gods; these days, they’re called Verizon and ATT.
Die Liebe der Danae
July 29 - August 7.