Teatro di San Carlo's latest production of Electra is a revival by Ellen Hammer of an outstanding staging by the late German director, Klaus-Michael Grüber. It premièred in Naples in 2003 and was awarded the prestigious Abbiati Prize, Italy's most distinguished music award, given annually by the Italian National Association of  Music Critics.

© Luciano Romano
© Luciano Romano

Elektra tells of an episode of the Atreides’ saga, which Hofmannsthal drew from Sophocles’ tragedy, whose violence and suffering he and Strauss preferred to the more meditative Euripides work with the same name. King Agamemnon, after his return from Troy, has been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. Their daughter Elektra obsessively wants to avenge her father, as she lives like an animal, unkempt, without talking to anyone, derided by the maidens and the entire court. For Clytemnestra, Elektra wandering in the courtyard is like a ghost accusing every moment her and her paramour and accomplice Aegisthus.

Indeed, Elektra is plotting revenge against her, as she is awaiting for her exiled brother Orestes’ return, and tries to convince her sister, the frail Chrysothemis, who only wants to live a normal life. Eventually, the tragedy is accomplished, Orestes kills the murderers and Elektra dies while dancing out of joy.

© Luciano Romano
© Luciano Romano
The sets and the costumes, all in shades of grey, are by the painter Anselm Kiefer. The stage is totally surrounded by monumental, labyrinthine three-layered containers made of crumbling concrete. Elektra lives in the bottommost one, filling the stage with never fading tension, while the other characters also move in and out the upper ones. It was an impressively ominous set, immersed in a worn-out aura that allowed the psychological drama to expand in every direction.

Tension and violence are the marks of this opera, one of the greatest of the twentieth century. Yet, along with fierceness, some lyrical passages give the plot moments of rest for the characters to recover strength before continuing the fight.

Elektra was performed most convincingly and committedly by Elena Pankratova, whose soprano is large and attractive in the middle register and quite easy around the top. A force of nature, she touched a dramatic acme at the end, when she heard Klytaemnestra shrieking as Orestes killed her, her eyes flashed with fiery pleasure, as her anger and despair vanished after a long-awaited revenge.

German soprano Manuela Uhl was an excellent Chrysothemis, perfectly suited to the character. Renée Morloc made for a wonderful Klytaemnestra. She is well suited to the demands of the role, showing all her psychological distress, and emphasizing the necessary vocal contrast with Elektra during their confrontation.

Baritone Robert Bork was an authoritative Orestes, his rich, strong voice filled with suffering. All the secondary roles, including Michael Laurenz as Aegisth were well cast.

© Luciano Romano
© Luciano Romano

Conductor Juraj Valčuha’s personality and technique were perfectly appropriate to make the orchestra express the succession of violence and lyricism contained in the shocking Strauss’s score. The conductor’s reading was full of emotion, and under his baton the orchestra offered one the best San Carlo Orchestra’s performances of this season. Along with all singers, conductor, director and set designer they accounted for the great success of the evening.