Performance art is the very act of renewal, so for a theatre to keep productions in repertoire for decades the stagings must be capable of re-inventing themselves, not simply every night, but over the years, or they risk becoming museum pieces and the medium along with it. It’s a thought that this most nostalgic of operatic seasons brings to mind, with its trend for recreating classic productions – Heiner Müller's 1990s Bayreuth Tristan in Lyon, Herbert von Karajan's Walküre in Salzburg – coupled with famous stagings reaching landmark anniversaries – Joachim Herz’s Welsh National Opera Butterfly performed for the 250th time, a 60th birthday outing for Nationaltheater Mannheim’s revered Parsifal. Mannheim has also just brought Ruth Berghaus’ 1980 staging of Elektra back into its repertoire for a short run of performances, and this one seems as fresh as if it were brand new, a success as much down to the superb musical performance, of which more later.

<i>Elektra</i> at Mannheim © Hans Jörg Michel
Elektra at Mannheim
© Hans Jörg Michel

Berghaus, who died in 1996, was one of the representatives of the radical East German school of directors fostered by the famed Walter Felsenstein in 1950s East Berlin, though she spent the most fruitful years of her career based in Frankfurt. Her Mannheim Elektra dates from the very start of this Frankfurt period, and by the standards of the so-called Regie school of ‘director’s opera’ that she most certainly represented, it is relatively straightforwardly presented as Greek tragedy, with Marie-Luise Strandt’s set depicting a dirty, rough animal pen of a courtyard surrounded by a white curtained void. Where the production’s skill and originality lie are in the delineation of character, the interaction of the protagonists, and in the unerring focus on Elektra herself (though not having seen it before I cannot state how much of the detail is original and how much the work of revival director Claudia Plaßwich). One effectively sees the events through Elektra’s eyes, and in Catherine Foster’s towering portrayal of the role we cannot but feel empathy. Her encounters with the other members of her family are striking, particularly the psychological power struggle between mother and daughter in the scene with Klytämnestra as each, physically, attempts to get the upper hand (not an apt model of behaviour on the eve of Germany’s Muttertag…). The ‘recognition scene’ between Elektra and her brother Orest is similarly intense in its emotional portrayal.

Catherine Foster (Elektra) © Hans Jörg Michel
Catherine Foster (Elektra)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Foster is an experienced Elektra, and it showed in her complete command and projection of the text and in her vocal incisiveness coupled with subtlety of line, all matched to a potent stage presence – indeed, it would be hard to encounter a more sheerly musical account of the role among present-day exponents. Almost the whole of the rest of the cast members were making role debuts at this performance, and even more notably, as far as one could tell they all came from the NTM’s own ensemble. Julia Faylenbogen’s richly characterised Klytämnestra, a plum role for any mezzo-soprano, was vivid without venturing into the kind of caricature that can be all too easily exposed in the role.

Catherine Foster (Elektra) © Hans Jörg Michel
Catherine Foster (Elektra)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Miriam Clark’s lustrous Chrysothemis was a good foil for her sister Elektra’s more dramatic tone, Thomas Berau was a determined Orest and Uwe Eikötter made the most of his cameo as the hapless Aegisth. There was no weak link among the minor roles of servants, maids and hangers-on, and indeed several distinguished performances among them – in all this was an impressive company achievement. To cap it all, the Mannheim National Theatre Orchestra caught fire under the baton of its 34-year-old British music director, Alexander Soddy – tone colours were beautifully and dramatically drawn, and the pacing was measured but intense, right down to the most emphatic and conclusive final hammer-blow of a note I think I’ve heard in the theatre.