Opera: Daphne, Royal Opera House, London

One woman's show
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The Independent Culture

While the big screen in the piazza at Covent Garden noisily relayed the departure of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats from the West End, the Royal Opera quietly welcomed Richard Strauss's Daphne to its stage for the first time, just 64 years after its Munich premiere. We can buy humans into felines, it would seem, but the transformation of nature-loving Daphne into a laurel tree is too much of a stretch.

In the event, Daphne's transformation was left to our collective imaginations in what turned out to be a rather splendid concert performance. The sun set as it only can in late Strauss, key motives heard in rapturous transfiguration, a delicate and yet sumptuous peroration, broken chords elaborating the harmony, chirruping violins establishing a mystical F-sharp major. It was not, on this occasion, quite as beautiful as it might have been, the violins sounding rather too exposed without the cover of the pit. But it was not typical of the performance as a whole. The Hungarian-born conductor Stefan Soltesz was at the very least an enthusiastic advocate for this "tone-poem-with-voices", a tall, rangy figure, given to great leaps of faith from the podium.

Apollonian serenity vs Dionysian wildness is the tension at the heart of the score. It is a great pantheist tome, but it is the serenity and rapture that stay with us. We enter this sun-kissed Grecian world to the oboe-led strains of a wind serenade. Daphne enters with her own serenade. She sings to the trees and her oneness with nature is magically conveyed in her oneness with the orchestra. Multi-divided strings festoon the voice, but her embellishments become almost indistinguishable from theirs. Strauss's endowment to the female voice was never richer than it is here. But who sings this hugely challenging role nowadays? Who's going to learn it with so little prospect of performing it?

Answer: the young German soprano Alexandra von der Weth, who made such a splash last season in Hans Werner Henze's Boulevard Solitude. The ovation she received for what was by any reckoning a spectacular role debut shook the house. This young lady has just about everything. She's tall, blonde and glamorous, with a fine instrument and an assured technical facility that enables her to take the dazzling fioritura of Strauss's vocal writing in her stride. Her singing will marinate in time; phrasings will grow longer and more meaningful, new colours will emerge. But the instincts are all in place, and so is the star-quality. In a word: wow.

To say that Daphne is a bit of a one-woman show is something of an understatement, but Strauss surrounds his heroine with voices that make capital of contrast. Her earth- mother Gaea is more bass-baritone than mezzo-soprano. Even Jane Henschel was hard-pushed. There's cunning contrast, too, in the distinction between the lyric tenor of Daphne's childhood friend and would-be sweetheart Leukippos (the excellent Roberto Sacca) and the Heldentenor of Apollo, Johan Botha. Botha has great notes but a somewhat stolid delivery. He was obviously feeling his way into the role, eyes fixed on the conductor for every cue. Individual notes shone, but phrases need to shine, too. Standing out from the crowd was the conspicuously up-and-coming bass-baritone James Rutherford as First Shepherd.

But it was Daphne's night. Who knows, Alexandra von der Weth may be the one good reason needed for returning the opera to the repertoire.

Final performance tonight (020-7304 4000)

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