The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra last week put on a two-night production of Richard Strauss’s Daphne: A Bucolic Tragedy in One Act. It was an outstanding collaboration between conductor, singers, instruments, and the stage and costume production and design team. Included in the show was a lone Dancer who represented the emotional content of the music (as opposed to representing a single voice or persona in opera). She nimbly wove about the stage painting a sort of visual poem of tones and feelings rather than articulated concepts.
I went to the show, expecting something really beautiful as I always find Strauss somehow soft on the ears. And, it was a masterpiece to be sure. Franz Wesler-Most, the symphony’s Music Director and the opera’s conductor, commented on the production in the program notes, observing that this opera is rarely performed because it is so difficult to sing, especially the role of Apollo. This team made it look effortless, and it was as a result a tremendously satisfying, rich, and edifying night out.
I was confused during the show, however, about the story of Daphne. Having read it in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and reprised in short elsewhere, I remembered the events surrounding this strange story differently. It is the curious tale of girl being transformed into a tree. In Ovid’s relatively brief treatment of the subject, Daphne is the child of Peneios and Gaea, respectively a river deity and the earth goddess. Daphne spends her time, however, living in nature as a mortal. She is beautiful but eschews the overtures of men, and she does not participate in midsummer and autumnal mating rites. She unwittingly catches the eye of Apollo, who pursues her very much against her will. Ovid describes a scene in which Apollo entwines around Daphne’s fleeing form, her hair, and her limbs during the chase. As she is about to be overcome, Daphne cries out to her father to save her from the Apollo’s lustful advance and to take from her the beauty that has so burdened her by arousing the attention of men and gods. Her father answers her prayer by causing Daphne to undergo transformation into a tree, which Apollo nevertheless continues to hug and molest because he can still feel Daphne’s trembling form beneath the wood. Apollo will now use her to make his lyre, arrows, and crowns.
In Strauss’s libretto, the story unfolds slightly differently. Daphne is here pursued by the shepherd Leukippos as well as by Apollo. She rejects the shepherd outright, even though they spend some time fondly reminiscing about their childhood friendship. Frustrated that his grown-up love has been refused, Leukippos in turn seeks to deceive Daphne by wearing women’s dress in order to enter her private circle with the goal of getting her drunk during a Dionysian orgiastic feast. Daphne manages to escape this event just to encounter Apollo, who admittedly has better luck. He tells Daphne he is responsible for the beautiful sunny day she so delighted in at the beginning of the opera and that, if she stays with him, she can enjoy sunshine all the time. Daphne is moved but not fully, so she runs away here as well.
In the end, Leukippos and Apollo have a showdown over Daphne, with each accusing the other of trying to deceive her. Leukippos is exposed as himself (not a woman), and Apollo is exposed as a god (not a mere cowherd on the foothills of Mt. Olympus). In the fight, Apollo strikes Leukippos dead. Daphne grieves the whole thing miserably, somehow ultimately thinking she is the one responsible for the death of Leukippos. Apollo, moved by Daphne’s lament, seeks from his divine family forgiveness for his own harsh behavior as well as approval of his decision to turn Daphne into a laurel tree. In this form, Daphne can now enjoy the sun and nature all the time, while men compete for her. Only the best will wear her crown.
What a strange tale, yes? And, what is it about? I find myself thinking about this over and over again. Is it merely an etiology of the significance of Laurel leaves? Is it about perpetual virginity? Is it about rape and its physical, spiritual, relational and psychological aftermath? Is it about the domestication of the female? Is it about blaming the victim? After all, Daphne loses her freedom of movement through no fault of her own, and in neither rendering does she ask for this particular fate. Save me, yes, but like this?
I’m not sure I can answer my questions but I am certain that there is an unsettling quality to Daphne’s “salvation.” On the one hand, Daphne’s newfound immortality is directly contrary to the human life of and within nature that she loved. On the other, perhaps her transformation into nature directly gives her the opportunity to be endlessly cyclical, even at the cost of losing her humanity. Daphne’s own divinity, by virtue of her parentage, does not seem to factor into the story. Nor does her voice, her hopes for herself, her intentions, or her free agency warrant any respect among men and gods. So, the free, beautiful, autonomous woman is transformed into a perpetual symbol of women’s bondage and men’s ability to compete for the right to claim her bounty. It is another kind of crucifixion tale, also rendered as a story of salvation, whose ultimate achievement is the transformation of both human and nature into that which is contrary to its own being.
The most perturbing question for me remains this: Are such stories descriptive of that which is or prescriptive of that which must be?
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.