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Lovers of Greek drama should book themselves an autumn break to Vicenza next year. For three weeks every October, the Veneto city’s Teatro Olimpico hosts a Classic Spectacles Cycle that includes two Greek tragedies, a concert and another more modern drama.
Designed by Palladio in 1580, the Teatro Olimpico was modelled on its predecessors in ancient Rome. Lack of heating makes a warm coat advisable – and denies the possibility of a winter season – but otherwise the great Renaissance architect’s final building is a triumph.
The stage was dominated by a vast proscenium arch whose portals opened on to long, palace-lined corridors replicating ancient Roman streets. Viewed from the steeply tiered stone seats, the scene evoked the classical world at its most potent and regal.
Yet Sophocles’ Electra, like so many Greek tragedies, stars those who have been cast out from the royal house. The director Luca De Fusco, working with a mixed repertory drawn mainly from his Carlo Goldoni Theatre Company and starring the Neapolitan actress and singer Lina Sastri, met the staging challenge by placing the action in and around a triangular island in front of the proscenium arch. Painted in crimson and ash-grey, with a crater in the centre, the volcanic surface evoked an abject yet lethal no-man’s-land.
Ingeniously, the villains emerged out of the crater. Having murdered her father King Agamemnon, Electra’s mother Clytemnestra and stepfather Aegisthus have taken possession of the royal house. As Clytemnestra, played with chilling, controlled charm by Leda Negroni, uncoiled herself on to the stage, the suggestion was that the grand palaces in the background could be close to Hades.
With Sastri’s melodic tones at his disposal, De Fusco rightly risked an operatic approach. Electra never spoke where she could sing and the chorus’s exquisite baroque croonings were a haunting accompaniment to her anguished arias.
Slightly less convincing were Sastri’s soliloquies. Although she recently returned to the stage, years spent on movie sets may have robbed the Neapolitan of rhythm and vocal power. In dialogue, however, she shone. There was a furious and moving exchange with her disguised brother Orestes – a subtly macho Max Malatesa – over the funereal urn she believed to contain his ashes. But the emotional tension was highest during the verbal cross-fire with her mother and sister Chrysothemis, a wide-eyed yet knowing Giovanna Mangiù. Benefiting from Caterina Barone’s modern Italian translation, these exasperated scraps – “You don’t know how to listen!” squawked Electra to Clytemnestra at one point – injected surges of contemporary energy.
The costumes also hovered between ancient and modern. A Middle Eastern theme saw Clytemnestra clad in Ottoman velvet robes and the chorus in burkas. Made from pleated dove-grey chiffon, the latter would have looked more at home on a Milan catwalk than an Afghan village, although they did make a lovely collective rustle of surprise when Orestes revealed himself.
Spared this garb, Giovanna di Rauso was a superb First Chorus. Her trance-like writhings and honey-rich singing voice utterly convinced us of the “inexorable step” of the approaching Fury.
The final act substituted Sophocles’ text for the libretto written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal for Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra. An opportunity for Sastri to sing and dance at full throttle, it was also memorable for the exchange between Electra and her doomed stepfather, Aegisthus.
“Why are you trying to please me?” he asked her nervously as she sang him towards the crater where Orestes lurked ready to kill him. “I have got wise,” rapped out Sastri. Her brittle words were an ironic retort to all those characters who have tried to persuade her to give up her desire for revenge. As she collapseed on to the lava we were left pondering the ethics of putting honour above life, just as Sophocles intended.
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