Daphne (Grimeborn Festival, 20 August 2015)

After managing the feat of failing both Glyndbourne shows I was aiming for this year, I enthusiastically took on Grimeborn, the Dalston festival that proudly pokes fun at the East Sussex event whilst attracting the same audience. Or at least the safe shows that I attend do.

daphnegbornDaphne: Justine Viani
Apollo: John Upperton
Leukippos: Panos Ntourntoufis
Fisherman/Daphne’s dad: James Gower
Gaea/Daphne’s mum: Violetta Gawara
Borja Gomez
Dario Dugandzic
Erika Mädi Jones
Milena Dobrzycka
Ros Stern
Jaymes Aaron

Piano: Marta Lopez
Director: Jose Gandia | Assistant Director: Henriette Rietveld
Set and Costume Designer: Victoria Johnstone | Lighting Designer: Philip Jones
Producer: Alexia Mankovskaya

When I saw they were running Richard Strauss’ Daphne I immediately bought a ticket. As the event approached I was way curious to see how they would manage to replicate the lush Strauss sound in an under 200 seat venue. The day before the event I checked the site again and noticed the important piece of info: orchestra = piano. For those who have not heard a Strauss opera done with just a piano, this 1min Bill Bailey video illustrates it perfectly:

It was a good thing Richard Strauss never tried his luck at immortality only via solo piano works. That being said, a bare bones event such as this reveals why he is a great opera composer: dude could write for the voice. Even the male parts ain’t that bad after all (thank you, John Upperton!).

As last year I had a great time sitting in the second row balcony for The Coronation of Poppea, I thought I’d repeat the feat this year and upgrade to first row balcony. That means you’re 5m away and about 1m above the singers. Yes, great for Monteverdi (and cleavage). For Strauss singers will feel compelled to shout even when battling just a piano hidden beneath the balcony.

Dear singers: we’re 5m away. I assure you we can hear. Perhaps not any more after the performance.

At least for once they can feel vindicated by overpowering the accompaniment. Mission accomplished. Special mention to John Upperton (Apollo), who correctly gauged the amount of shout needed to make the public appreciate Straussian passion without also imparting the gift of hearing damage.

On to the plot. Wiki tells us:

At the festival of Dionysos, Leukippos is among the women wearing Daphne’s dress, and he invites her to dance. Believing him to be a woman she agrees,

Wait, what? Just how many women are wearing Daphne’s dress? Lasso-dress if ever there was one! Or was it rather: Leukippos is among the women, wearing Daphne’s dress? Notice she likes it when a girl asks her to dance? How nice!

Let’s see how Wiki introduces Daphne:

The chaste girl Daphne sings a hymn of praise to nature. She loves the sunlight as trees and flowers do, but she has no interest in human romance.

Sounds to me like she has no interest in romance with men (or men who look manly). In this production she was very interested in this girl indeed. Leukippos, whose acting chops I enjoyed a lot, played this bit for laughs but could bring out the youthful emotion as well – later, when Leukippos’ identity is revealed and he needs to plead the depth of his feelings to Daphne, after which:

Daphne refuses both her suitors, and Apollo pierces Leukippos with an arrow.

That was an elaborate dying scene (complete with lighting effects) which, again, Leukippos sustained very nicely.

Daphne mourns with the dying Leukippos. Apollo is filled with regret. He asks Zeus to give Daphne new life in the form of one of the trees she loves. Daphne is transformed, and she rejoices in her union with nature [dehggi: and the girls handily caught in her dress]. This transformation scene, the (metamorphosis), is opulently silvery in the string section.

Opulent it wasn’t, absent the string section, but the silver came out indeed.

The stage production involved three silent characters (one man and two women, looking like they had been thrown out by their Nazi landlord during the war and perhaps having some sort of three-way business going on) being manhandled by the shepherds at various moments of the performance. In the end they find peace by lying down with the dead Leukippos. Perhaps the three-way business was their Dyonisian nature torturing them and the sacrifice of true love liberates them?

Daphne wears a simple dress, Leukippos a casual shirt and Apollo – curiously – an army coat. I suppose it’s the dictatorship of order at work. Leukippos’ stage direction was to act campy/cute, Daphne hieratically and Apollo modern and restrained (rather sinister). Daphne’s parents look like middleaged lushes on a cruise boat. It rather worked, what with it being Strauss, where a melange of eras and styles is always at home.

The most solid performance belonged to John Upperton1, whom I could follow both vocally and dramatically through the evening. I liked Panos Ntourntoufis’ Leukippos dramatically for pulling off very different moods. Justine Viani’s Daphne as a not-quite-human figure wasn’t bad either. I also appreciated a certain still strength she projected when she refused her suitors. Vocally I couldn’t follow the drama as easily as with Apollo – though perhaps as not-quite-human figure she’s not going to be very dramaticaly involved. The volume tended to go to 11 and stay there in the top notes, but I did enjoy her middle, plump and a bit darker – wouldn’t mind hearing her sing in that range again. The bits involving both Daphne and Apollo came off best and quite engagingly.

All in all, whilst not the best thing ever, it made for an interesting evening and a pleasant ending to a long day. I should add that the public was very vocally involved before the performance and during the interval, from “we’ve 5min before the start of the show, let’s read the synopsis aloud” to “why aren’t the singers younger?” Well, because it’s Strauss, innit?


  1. Who had already appeared on my radar in a grand way: as no one else than Tito, last November. 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on August 22, 2015, in 20th century, arcola theatre, live performances, richard strauss and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. good thing there wasnt a full orchestra else you would really lose your hearing! but i do like the storyline! will have to hunt for a version on tube, probably lots of room for staging idea..

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