If Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra does ring a bell in your mind, it is because of the famous article Telepatia musicale in which Giovanni Tebaldini suggests by means of musical examples that Richard Strauss either copied or had a transalpine case of coincidental inspiration with the Italian composer who premièred his opera a couple of years before the première of Elektra in Dresden. I had never heard Cassandra before this evening and the first bar already shows the famous motive associated to Agamemnon in Strauss’s opera. And this is only the first of a series of similarities. In any case, comparison between the two works only show that, if Strauss indeed “borrowed” some motives from Gnecchi, the Bavarian composer’s superior usage of them should have been reason for Gnecchi to be proud. As it is, Cassandra sounds like Turandot with a bold harmonic twist. The canzonetta-style of its melodies sandwiched between dissonant chords is something that requires some adaptation, but the work is certainly atmospheric and the orchestration is imaginative. It is curious, however, that the title role is more or less unimportant in the plot, even if it has a big scene before the opera abruptly ends.
Donald Runnicles could find the right balance between Italianate and German qualities in the work and provided beautiful sounds throughout. In the cast, Markus Brück stands out in a powerfully and richly sung account not only of the role of Egisto but also in the prologue (replacing an ailing Nathan De’Shon Myers). Takesha Meshé Kizart’s smoky soprano is a bit on the light side for Clitennestra, but she certainly did not seem fazed by what is required from her, producing some exciting chest voice in her low register throughout. Gaston Rivero is too light-toned for Agamennone, but sang firmly and securely in a tricky tessitura. Julia Benzinger could also do with a more dramatic voice. These singers suggested rather efficiency than thrill, and the results were finally quite unexciting, but I am afraid that the score itself is also to blame.
After the intermission, Donald Runnicles proved again that he is a most reliable Straussian, ensuring ideal balance in his orchestra and helping his singers by keeping his forces under the leash without losing tonal quality. The transparent reading was musically extremely rewarding and, if the cast allowed him a bit more power, it could be a quite gripping experience. As it was, the final impression was of sensitivity and stylishness. And the house orchestra followed the conductor in an exemplary account of this difficult music.
In the title role Eva Johansson could figure as an example of a long list of what-not-to-do in a voice lesson – her soprano lacks harmonics in her entire range, her intonation is erratic, there is no legato to speak of, the low register is unsupported, the high notes are pushed – but still I have to confess I found her flawed performance quite touching. If I may borrow a concept from La Cieca’s Parterre Box, this would be “emotional journey”. Her underwhelming Elektra seemed more humane in her faltering expression of rage, a more believable sister to Chrysothemis. Her Recognition Scene finally produced the right effect for the wrong reasons – the imperfect attempt to produce a lyric line (topped by a praiseworthy intent to produce mezza voce whenever this was required) was itself the sound image of Elektra’s ruined beauty. All this aided by an engaged stage performance made me forgive the never-ending list of drawbacks, but I wonder how long she will be able to tackle this repertoire in such a reckless manner. Manuela Uhl seemed to be in an off day – the voice refused to flow, sounded shrill in its higher reaches and failed to pierce elsewhere. Julia Juon is an experienced Klytämnestra, her mezzo still pleasant and rich, but spacious low notes were not really there. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was in her prime when she sang the role in the Dresden première and I wonder why opera houses believe that this role should be cast exclusively by veterans. I really dream of listening to it by a large, full, warm voice. Burkhard Ulrich was a firm-toned Aegisth, but Stephen Bronk lost a bit steam in the middle of his performance. Katarina Bradic’s First Maid and Ulrike Helzel’s Third Maid are worthy of mention.
Director Kirsten Harms uses the same set for both operas – and I don’t need to describe it, for it looks like almost every set designed for R. Strauss’s Elektra. The same goes for costumes. It seems that the axe is very important for her, because Klytämnestra had to carry it throughout both operas. It is unintentionally funny when Cassandra says that she foresees a murder that very day as Clitennestra makes a what-is-she-talking-about?-face while greeting her husband with that enormous axe in her hand. As I use to say, Mrs. Harms has a problem with third acts and I thought that, since there was no third act today, she could feel a bit more confident about her directing. But there is always a last scene – in Elektra, for example, she found it important to have some ghost girls perform a ballet around Elektra. Maybe they were remains of a production of an old staging of Adam’s Giselle who were still bound by contract to the Deutsche Oper.