We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Roberto Oswald is a busy boy. Barely a week after opening his Washington Opera Parsifal, he opened a production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra at the Baltimore Opera. Elektra makes a nice bookend for Parsifal, in fact. Whereas Wagner drew on Arthurian legend and New Testament teachings, Strauss’ librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, went straight back to Sophocles—but both works challenged accepted definitions of tonality, both treated the orchestra as the real star of the show, and both dealt with communities suffering through years of moral and spiritual crisis with ever-diminishing hope that salvation would come. Elektra is a scorching, propulsive, psychologically dense opera. Oswald has done what he can to ignore all that.

There’s a fundamental problem with setting great plays and operas in insane asylums, as Oswald has done with Elektra: namely, that any relationships developed, any emotional truths revealed onstage, are rendered meaningless, because everyone’s crazy. If the asylum’s introduced right off the bat, the production has nowhere to go. If the asylum’s revealed in a surprise ending (à la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the audience is told, essentially, that its emotional investment in the characters was a waste of time, because everyone’s crazy. Oswald chose to lead with floor-scrubbing psychotics and fascistic attendants herding them about the stage, neatly doing away with dramatic tension within the first five minutes.

Where the nuthouse gambit pays off, of course, is in the context it gives the larger-than-life acting found in opera in general and Elektra in particular. No apologies need be made in this production for big faces, flailing arms, or grandstanding theatrics. Everything’s marvelously manic, but to what avail? Oswald establishes his Big Concept and keeps the stage wonderfully active, but what is he trying to say about Strauss’ opera?

It could be argued that the score has pathology written into every bar. But the jangling, jarring, decayingly sweet orchestration is put at the service of a story so raw and real that it takes on the power of archetype. The myth Strauss’ opera is based on is a seminal one in Western thought and, more pointedly for Oswald, in Freudian theory. Elektra’s uninterrupted 100 minutes concern Elektra’s sackcloth-and-ashes vigil awaiting the arrival of her brother, Orestes, who will murder their mother, Klytämnestra, in retaliation for Klytämnestra’s murder of their father, Agamemnon. Clearly, all these characters have a little madness in them. But to write off all these members of the cursed House of Atreus with a sweeping clinical diagnosis does the material, the performers, and the audience no service.

There are ways to coax some resonance out of the asylum conceit, but none are explored here. What if not all characters were institutionalized—if perhaps only Klytämnestra or, better still, only Elektra were hidden away in a hospital but sane? Maybe the story’s urgency could revolve around Visiting Day, when Elektra must convince her timid sister, Chrysothemis, that her hopes of offing Mom aren’t so crazy. (Chrysothemis’ costume suggests that she may indeed be visiting the asylum from the outside world, but before long she starts acting even loonier than Elektra.) Even a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest spin (who’s saner, the guy in the rubber room or his keeper?) might strike some sparks. But to Oswald, everyone’s too far gone for any teasing ambiguity.

Most of the time, the concept’s simply a distraction. But sometimes it’s downright counterproductive, as at the opera’s shattering climax, when Elektra recognizes the stranger in the courtyard to be Orestes and has to free him from a straitjacket before she can embrace him. This key moment becomes muddled and attention-diverting rather than attention-riveting. And why, if we’re supposed to be in a European asylum during the ’20s—Oswald explains in his program notes that he sees similarities between ancient Athens and art-deco Europe—should there be a three-story statue of Agamemnon and crumbled classical columns in the patients’ common area? The ruins of a previous concept, perhaps? Oswald’s sets and lights generate some stunning atmosphere, but these scenic elements have more to do with the opera itself than the concept he’s imposed on it, and they wind up creating further confusion. In an art form starved for richly imagined, forward-thinking staging ideas, this kind of production sets the cause back almost as dramatically as a literalist paint-by-numbers approach.

The cast bears up well under all this nonsense, their performances making sense whether the characters are viewed as the ones Hofmannsthal wrote or simply as a tin of mixed nuts. Marilyn Zschau is not the most nuanced Elektra I’ve seen, but the broad strokes in which she paints capture well the character’s cynicism and elemental scariness. She throws her big voice around in a way sadly typical of singers in this role, tending to be consistently loud in the upper part of her voice and hard to hear lower down, where her voice simply gives out.

Klytämnestra has the opposite problem: The chest voice is thrusting and tremendously expressive, and the rest disappears, except for some big, harsh top notes. But this isn’t just any singer taking the role. Klytämnestra is sung by none other than Renata Scotto. Yes, you read that right. The legendary Italian diva of a generation ago is appearing in Baltimore in the least expected, most surprisingly apropos vehicle opera fans could imagine. This is the soprano whose ’60s recordings of Verdi and Puccini are considered classics of the phonograph, whose Met appearances in the ’70s and ’80s were deemed acting triumphs even when her voice had curdled, and whose recent career has drawn her to such out-of-the-way literature as Poulenc’s La Voix Humane and the bel canto repertoire, as well as to stage directing.

What’s remarkable about Scotto’s Klytämnestra is how idiomatic she sounds in Strauss’ German. Even if the sometimes punishingly loud orchestra overwhelms her now-compromised instrument, her evergreen dramatic instincts shine through. She’s always been an old-school opera actress, but in the right material, her traditional style has proved compelling. Here, she conveys nobility, derangement, vulnerability, and preening narcissism in about equal measure and, in her costume, suggests a cross between a grandmotherly flapper and Norma Desmond—which somehow seems right. Even with her voice in shreds, this opportunity to catch Scotto should be leapt at.

The rest of the cast offers admirable support. Renate Behle sings Chrysothemis with bright, penetrating tone and plays her with madness of the stark-staring variety. Tom Fox makes a tall, striking, compassionate Orestes—the sanest of the lot, straitjacket notwithstanding—with a big, bass-baritone voice of dark, beautiful grain. In the tiny but important role of Klytämnestra’s nasty little bedmate, Aegisthus, Randolph Locke is a suitably repellent presence with a finely honed character tenor of solid carrying power.

As in last season’s BaltOp Tannhäuser, Christian Badea whips the orchestra into a frenzy. Not for him is Strauss’ advice to conduct Elektra like Mendelssohn’s “fairy music.” Badea takes the asylum business to heart, bringing every neurotic bleat of woodwinds, every paranoid brass outburst strongly to the fore. He occasionally goes overboard in the volume department, but, with those women onstage, there’s real parity in the screaming match taking place across the footlights. Badea understands that Strauss, like Wagner, unfolded the juiciest parts of his stories in the pit. Under his baton, Elektra’s story is retold as if all of our lives depended on it. CP

Pamela Kucenic and Nina Warren will replace Zschau and Behle, respectively, for the Nov. 17 performance; Zschau and Behle will return for the Nov. 19 performance.