Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra (1926) is one of those operas you hardly ever get to hear. Richard Strauss lifted the opening theme for his own Elektra. Accusations of plagiarism were made. Ironically, the Italian came out of the spat in far worse shape than his German colleague, and Cassandra soon lapsed into obscurity.
Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, currently in need of recognition and success, has come up with the idea of unearthing Cassandra and presenting it in a double bill with Elektra. The two operas fit together thematically, both examining the troubled House of Atreus with Sophocles as a starting-point and Orestes’s matricide as climax. Gnecchi, however, views events through Clytemnestra’s eyes, and points out (as Strauss does not) that the murder of her husband was preceded by his having dispatched their daughter Iphigenia.
With this project, Intendantin Kirsten Harms has put herself perilously in the spotlight. Since she pulled the plug on Hans Neunfels’s Idomeneo a year ago because of alleged Muslim extremist threats, the reputation of her house has continued to suffer. This is the third time she has staged an opera in her house herself. Neither of her earlier efforts were triumphs. Nor have her repertoire and casting choices helped boost audience numbers.
On the plus side, the announcement last week that Donald Runnicles is to take over from the unloved Renato Palumbo as chief conductor from 2009 gives cause to hope that the Deutsche Oper might have a future with Harms.
The double-bill is an idea that looks interesting on paper but falls flat in the execution. It does Cassandra no favours at all to be presented alongside Elektra, so that everyone can see immediately just how much worse the Italian opera is than Strauss’s masterpiece. The fact that Cassandra is also sung, played and conducted significantly worse is equally unhelpful.
Gnecchi’s dizzily foetid late romanticism is the kind of thing you either have to like or hate. The influences of Wagner, Strauss and Berlioz are clearly audible, with a hint of Respighi and a whiff of Puccini that has been left out of the fridge for too long. The piece is a kind of oratorio, with a Greek tragedy-style choir commenting on the action, and long, wordy monologues in between.
Leopold Hager failed to keep choir and orchestra together. In the seminal role of murderous wife Clytemnestra, Susan Anthony appears in front of a gilded wall in Marilyn Monroe wig, little black dress and pearls, dragging the corpse of a slaughtered ram and an axe, a physically compelling performance that sounds strained in the upper registers and often falls short of the note. Aegistrus (unremarkable: Piero Terranova), whom Gnecchi gives more of a run for his money than Strauss, seduces and manipulates her in suit, tie and black leather gloves. Cassandra appears, heralding disaster; Malgorzata Walewska gives a spine-tingling and fruity account of this plum role. Agamemnon (loud: Gustavo Porta) returns wrapped in a blanket and encrusted with blood.
The golden walls part to reveal a muddy walled courtyard for Elektra, where everybody fares better. Harms tells this story as a classic in modern dress, with few psychological insights, no original ideas, yet unimpeachable handiwork. Hagen conducts better, the orchestra responds, and the cast is solid enough, with Manuela Uhl’s impassioned Chrysothemis and Jane Henchel’s show-stopping Clytemnestra head and shoulders above the rest.
A warm audience response suggests that Harms is at least on the right path for her public. Cassandra is to be dropped after a short run, with Elektra staying in the repertoire. They could have done it that way from the start.