Cassandra by Vittorio Gnecchi, and Elektra by Richard Strauss, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

Cassandra, by the Italian composer Gnecchi, was written four years before Stauss’s Elektra. It tells of Agamemnon’s return to his wife Klytemnestra, who intends to kill him as revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia at the start of his voyage to Troy, and of course to preserve her relationship with Aegisthus. Agamemnon brings Cassandra with him from Troy, and she prophesies death. He believes her, but his wife whisks him away and the deed is done. The opera ends with the death of Agamemnon, though Cassandra will die later because that is her fate when someone finally believes her prophecies. The main role was for Klytemnestra, brilliantly sung by Susan Anthony, and her lover Aegisthus was well sung by Piero Terranova. Cassandra herself was very well portrayed by Nora Gubisch, but she only appears late in this fifty-minute opera. Agamemnon was Gustavo Porta. The late Romantic music was melodic, but tended to be at fever pitch without much of a let-up — it needed more light and shade.

Elektra had a very strong cast of female singers: Janice Baird as Elektra, Hanna Schwarz as Klytemnestra, and Manuela Uhl as Chrysothemis. Both the latter two, who were in Salome three days earlier as Herodias and Salome respectively, sang their roles in this opera particularly strongly. The small part of Aegisthus was well sung by Burkhard Ulrich, and Orestes was ineffectually portrayed by Egils Silins.

The director for both operas was Kirsten Harms, with scenery and costumes by Bernd Damovsky. In both operas the sets were very plain, having high walls with no top in sight, and the women’s costumes were modern and plain, mainly black dresses. Agamemnon in Cassandra, and Orestes after the murder in Elektra, were both covered in pinkish/red paint from top to waist, and looked like simple butchers.

The conductor was Kazushi Ono, but in Elektra, which I have heard many times before, the orchestra seemed out of control on the loud passages, with the brass too harsh. He certainly brought the quiet passages under control, almost as if in a chamber opera, but I found myself unmoved by the effect.

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