It is said that when planning revenge one should dig two graves. This is perhaps an easily accomplished task in the Kirsten Harms staging of Richard Strauss' Elektra, currently being revived by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The production opens with Elektra already half-buried in gravel in the barren courtyard below looming castle walls. It is Elektra's hour to mourn her father Agamemnon's death, the very hour of his death, and the castle maids reconnoiter her status, both fascinated and fearful. We begin to explore the depths of Elektra's obsession with revenge for the murder of her father.

In 1903 Austrian playwright and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal explored the Elektra myth in his drama of the same name. In his handling Hofmannsthal turned the ubiquitous Greek chorus into gossiping castle maids, and did away with most of the mythical aspects – no Furies to torment, just the subjects' own singleminded suffering. Composer Richard Strauss attended the play, and then implored Hofmannsthal to create a libretto for the opera, an intense psycho-drama in one act, which was premiered in Dresden in 1909.

Soprano Evelyn Herlitzius offers audience members a wonderful and perfectly upsetting Elektra. She is present on the stage for the entirety of the 90 minute, one-act opera, and is simply superb in every way. Her beautiful soprano voice has no trouble reaching the audience over the richly scored, and very large orchestra. Ms Herlitzius' movements and expressions are also riveting. Fabulous. Dare to take your eyes off of her.

In this production one can almost feel empathy for Klytaemnestra. Yes, she killed her husband, but in revenge for his killing of her child, and she is well and truly plagued, poor dear. Klytaemnestra suffers from nightmares, she is a bloodied, paranoid wreck at the end of her tether. Doris Soffel performs the role wonderfully. Her voice is strong, yet her body appears to dither, leaning on her bloodied axe as if it were a walking aid. Klytaemnestra is suffering, and distributive; killing whatever she thinks might help her to suffer less in bloody, sacrificial rites. This staging has Klytaemnestra in a flaming red cape over a mob-wife's pantsuit, which is perfect. She is laden in pearls – her impotent amulets against the dreams that plague.

Soprano Manuela Uhl as Elektra's sister Chrysothemis was unfortunately often not to be heard or understood over the powerful orchestra. Ms Uhl has a truly lovely voice, when we managed to discern it, and the public applauded her performance generously. Her presence on the stage, however was especially memorable. As Elektra curses Chrysothemis, the wound is felt by every member of the audience. The fall of Elektra's axe could not have injured Chrysothemis any more than this uttered curse.

Singing with all the power that a brother coming to the rescue should possess, Tobias Kehrer presented the audience with a strapping Orest. Although Kehrer gave us exactly what we wanted with his strong, well enunciated bass, the staging unfortunately failed him somewhat. Having committed the murder of his mother, Orest appears bathed in bright red above the barren courtyard, smiling gleefully while the orchestra communicates the moment of his completion of the revenge act. The appearance of this brawny, good looking, now red-painted lad with a big, white smile is unfortunately all together comic, inappropriate and distracting. Aegisth, while doomed, does an excellent job of it. Tenor Clemens Bieber is a much loved singer in the house, and for good reason. 

The orchestra, under the baton of Musical Director Donald Runnicles was spectacular, powerful and yet sensitive. All of the emotions at play – the psychological torment, longing, obsession, and reminiscences are clearly communicated in the orchestral scoring. The Deutsche Oper Berlin premiered this Elektra first in 2007, with Donald Runnicles conducting then also.

The success of the visual treatment of this production is debatable. In a set designed by Bernd Damovsky, the singers must wade through some sort of mid-calf deep gravel for the entirety. It must be dusty, and the maids in their prim black pumps would surely get rocks in their shoes. I resented the distraction of these worries. Rather than dancing herself to death at the close, members of the opera's ballet company dash out to writhe, worm-like, in the rocks, and then perish. They certainly writhe well, but it is odd, and again an annoying distraction from Elektra's final moments. The lighting, however was very successful, and towering castle walls, at times gold but mostly dark and menacing, gave us an appropriate feeling of foreboding and hint of secrets within.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin is now in the middle of their Strauss-Wochen. This is an opera house that knows how to deliver a great Strauss performance, and I highly recommend a visit.

****1