Richard Strauss' Elektra returned to the Teatro Comunale di Bologna after 45 years. Claustrophobic and disquieting, Guy Joosten’s outstanding production met a first class cast and orchestra.

Elektra’s psyche, reason and fate are already imprinted in her name:“Alektra”, meaning “without marriage vows” in ancient Greek. Especially in Richard Strauss’ masterpiece, Elektra is the personification of revenge itself. Princess of Mycenae, she helplessly experienced her father Agamemnon’s death, whose murder was conceived and carried out by her mother together with Aegisth. At the beginning of the opera, Elektra repeats several times the name of her father (whom she yearns to avenge): “Agamemnon! Agamemnon!” as a sort of mantra, her sole reason for living. Yet, this is only a part of the carnage cycle which had invested her House: Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) had already killed his half-brother (Chrysippus) and his nephews; Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, causing Klytaemnestra’s desperation (she then nursed her vengeance for years, until Agamemnon’s return from Troy). Elektra, thanks to the help of her brother Orest, accomplishes her longed-for revenge. Blood on more blood: the cycle is never ending. Orest is indeed tormented by the Erinyes and finds peace only through the help of the gods. Strauss’ Elektra does not hint a glance at the future of the Atreidai: following the assassination of Klytaemnestra and Aegisth, Elektra appears dying during a spasmodic dance. The princess, reduced to a lifeless host of morbid obsessions, can find peace and redemption only dying and pursuing her vengeance.

Joosten’s mise-en-scène was powerfully engaging. The Palace of Mycenae appears abandoned to ruins and decay. Its ancient splendour can barely be grasped among the overall decline and a climate of military oppression. Elektra, though a princess, lives on the fringes of the Palace’s courtyard, as a slave or even as a beast. Considered a fool, dangerous and being dreaded, Elektra is avoided by everyone, except for a maid who is still faithful to her. In particular her mother, Klytaemnestra (sung full of grace by Natascha Petrinsky), cannot even stand her disturbing glances. Petrinsky does not deliver an usually hysterical and over the top Klytaemnestra, but a sovereign, enriched with dignity yet obsessed by the nightmares of the past and not completely negative. Her revenge in its own time was as legitimate as the one Elektra is now brooding in her breast.

Military oppression is almost palpable since the very first scene, where the gaolers (all women) mock, denude and shut inside a locker the only maid who still protects and loves Elektra. Sexual ambiguity, subtended in Strauss’ and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, is widely amplified by all these initial images. On the other hand, Elektra is almost a sexless character. She seems the personification of rage and vengeance, especially in comparison to her sister, Chrysothemis. Unlike the former, the latter longs for a quiet and simple life, but cannot realise it because of the poisoned and tense climate of grudge that Elektra spreads all over the Palace. Aegisth’s guards (all male) also interact in a morbid and ambiguous camaraderie among themselves. Joosten emphasises these gloomy, morbid and unclear shades, depicting a sombre and oppressive tragedy, where all values are overturned and a sense of death and revenge seems to be part of this family itself.  

Elena Nebera perfectly identified with her character. She showed a refined technique, a remarkable volume, fluency and grit in facing Strauss’ demanding part. Ire and excess trickled down her Elektra, full of impassioned energy.

Since the first moment she appeared on stage, Natascha Petrinsky marked her Klytaemnestra with gravitas. Not just a butcher but also a victim, she sang with incisiveness, without neglecting the fragility of a woman haunted by ghosts and prophetic visions of her incoming misfortune. The rest of the cast proved to be nothing less, ranging from a luminous and precise Anna Gabler (Chrysothemis), to Jan Vacik (Aegisth) and Orest (Thomas Hall), both convincing on stage.

Lothar Zagrosek conducted the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, that appeared to be in great shape. They managed to capture the intensity and unrestrained chromaticism of this powerful score. A pure and intense evening of music, which deserved the warm ovation of the audience at the end of the execution.