Richard Strauss: Elektra (1909)

Opera in one act. Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.

Hugh von Hofmannsthal wrote his play Elektra in three weeks in 1903 at the age of 28. Following the first production of Salome, he tempted Strauss with this scenario, which the composer thought was too similar to his most recent opera.

Strauss was eventually persuaded to wrote the opera, and in many ways it is an improvement and an innovation on Salome. Structurally, Elektra is more even than Salome. It is at the same time perhaps the most chromatically advanced opera up to its creation. That being said, resultantly, it is also less lyrical and romantic, but it is also a tale of matricide, so does it really need to be?

The result was interestingly more of a success and less of one than Salome had been. The orchestra was the largest Strauss had ever used, to the point that cartoons from the time period depicted the audience in the orchestra pit and the orchestra in the auditorium. Fewer hated Elektra, but also fewer found the score particularly melodic. Strauss himself knew that musically this was the most anti-diatonic he could go, and all of his later operas have since been seen as supposed back-sliding. This is not actually the case, it is simply that Strauss himself felt that this was the furtherest music could go. He was not entirely wrong.

SETTING: The Palace of Agamemnon, Mycenae. Elektra (sopranos) plots the murder of her mother Klytemnestra (contralto) in revenge for the murder of her father Agamemnon. At first she tries to get her sister Chrysothemis (soprano) to do the deed, but the sudden and surprising arrival of their brother Orestes (baritone) spells doom for mother and her new husband Aegisthus (tenor).

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: There is no prelude, instead we get an orchestral scream: the Agamemnon Motto * (it is unmistakable, and returns with not too little frequency). Then we are off into a five minute long prologue for the gossipy servant women, most of it about Elektra and how she acts like a wild animal day and night (she briefly comes on in an orchestrally depicted scatter which returns later in the opera).

6: Agamemnon! Elektra gets her first (and best) solo *** as she introduces her purpose: bloody revenge for her father who was murdered by her mother. The best musical ideas here will return later in the opera (especially towards the end. In the first half, the best is mostly the various vocalizations of Agamemnon and its orchestration. Finally, a romantic tune wells up from the orchestra. It ends will a brilliantly joyous symphony as she finishes (rather, is rendered exhausted).

18: Ich kann nicht sitzen Chrysothemis gets an outing which is a musically lyrical glass of cool water, and an interesting self-reflection as she goes about thinking that she would be better off as a peasant **.

25: The arrival of Klytemnestra * is depicted in a ferocious symphonic intermezzo (which sounds as if it would later be quoted by multiple film scores), which unfortunately is the last interesting feature in the score for rather a long time (close to half an hour). Klytemnestra has had a very bad dream, and tells Elektra about it (Strauss uses the violas to depict self-pity on the part of the queen). The dialogue between Elektra and Klytemnestra is mostly rather boring musically (although not theatrically), starting off as a monologue for Klytemnestra (who relates her nightmare, mostly about ritual human sacrifice) and then Elektra pouncing on her with double meanings in an attempt to get her to admit her guilt. Strauss pulls off much of this in three ways: orchestral melody fragments, returns to prior material (sometimes quoting Salome, but also repeating the dance theme Elektra will use later in the opera), and chromaticism. The conversation turns to the issue of Orestes: is he mad, is he dead, will he kill his mother? Elektra goes into details about how Orestes will murder Klytemnestra in her bed (this is the second Elektra monologue, although it is not quite as good as the other three). Eventually she just can not take any more of this and Klytemnestra runs off screaming and laughing as Elektra is left trying to figure out just what this woman is doing.

53, 56: Orest ist tod! Chrysothemis comes on screaming like a wild animal *: Orestes is dead, and everyone else knew but us! (This sort of reminds me of days at work when I contemplated sending out my resume on Indeed). Elektra tells her that she is being silly and mum is lying to them. Finally, after nearly an hour of anywhere from one to six femoids on an empty stage, someone with a Y-chromosome walks in (a tenor, no surprise). This is a slave who interacts with a bass old slave requesting a horse so he can ride out to Aegisthus and tell him the news about Orestes. The tenor part is complex, ranging from low E-flat to a sustained high B-flat toward the end. Neither is heard from again.

59: Wie struck du bist! Elektra turns to Chrysothemis, telling her that now it is up to her to murder mum and her fancy man in her second great aria ***. Chrysothemis tells her that she must be nuts. Strauss pulls this off to a surprisingly lyrical theme considering how bloodthirsty our heroine is. The second part: in which Elektra tries to pull sister/peer-pressure on her Chrys-sis, is one of the few moments of sweet nothings in a score otherwise known for its astringent preoccupations. Still, Chrysothemis is not going to do it. Eventually, Elektra curses her (using the exact same words Johanaan uses on Salome) punctuating on a high B-flat.

69: Ich muss hier Warten Orestes arrives *, and Elektra does not recognize him at all for around ten minutes (which drag at times). Strauss sets him up like he is the Messiah (the music is eerily similar to the accompaniment for Johanaan, or Wotan for that matter). Granted, Orestes does not recognize Elektra for around six minutes into their interview.

77: Orest! Elektra realizes who this baritone stranger she has been talking to all this time actually is (the orchestra takes about a solid minute just to unwind from the revelation). There is a theme from Salome which Strauss has been using if one can catch it as Elektra launches into her third great aria ***.

87: Lass zittern diesen Leib! The brief Orestes-Elektra duet ** before he goes off to murder their mum (depicted by the orchestral through the strings and cries from Klytemnestra). The first murder prompts the return of the servant girls from the prologue and Chrysothemis, but no action is taken and there is no warning for what happens next.

93: He! Lichter! Aegisthus arrives to a weird little tune * and embarks in an oddly pleasant sounding conversation with Elektra before going off to get knifed by Orestes (she convinces him that those who have come to the palace have done so to give him fitting homage). Interestingly, given that the household seemed to have been alerted by the screams of Klytemnestra, the fact that she frequently cried out like that in her sleep did not prompt anyone to check to see if she had not been, oh, I don’t know, murdered! This is possibly one of the few moments of the opera that could easily have stepped out of 19th century opera. Aegisthus is heard screaming from within the house, Elektra cries out to her father to hear his revenge.

98: Elektra! Schwester! Chrysothemis comes on declaring what Elektra already knows ***: the Orestes is alive and has just slain their mother and Aegisthus. Get with the program Chrys, says Elektra, that was so five minutes ago. A brief SATB choir can be heard in the background as Elektra tells Chrysothemis that there is no way she could not but hear what has transpired. This turns into a glorious duet for the sisters.

104: Schwester! Tanze mit mir! The dance of Elektra *** which is the final movement of the opera as she calls Chrysothemis to join her. She eventually falls dead as a result and Chrysothemis is left to bang on the palace doors, screaming for Orestes on a high-G as the curtain falls.

COMMENTS:

Elektra is frequently compared to its older sister, Salome. Whereas the older is seen as shocking but invoking the melodiousness of a Middle Eastern night, Elektra has all of the power of its source material: a Greek tragedy of gore and matricide. What Strauss does here is invoke the spirit of Greek tragedy, with all of its shock value, and implants it in his orchestral scoring. The earlier parts of the opera mostly lack melodious passages (excluding Chrysothemis and the incidental moment for Elektra herself). Gradually, this does give way to a more romantic sound, but by the end this is blended with a heightened form of the seemingly barbaric sounds which started the work off. That Strauss deliberately chose to never return to this form of music, an intriguing blend of chromaticism stretched to its tonal limits (yet without breaking), the claim can be made the this is the 20th century equivalent of Tristan, although I would also claim that, in spite of its equal preoccupation with death and blood, that Strauss does a far better (and certainly more entertaining) job than Wagner. The work does have its longueurs, I am not in love with the Klytemnestra interview, but otherwise, Strauss demonstrates a strong sense of economy here.

In some ways, this opera is the opposite of Salome. Whereas the earlier opera was overwhelmingly male (there are only three roles written for female voices, one being a transvestite part), Elektra is almost entirely female. Given the acerbic nature of this score compared to the opulent Orientalism of Salome, the heavy usage of female voices (mostly sopranos and mezzos) keeps the opera from dragging. By the time Orestes finally arrives, the baritone is not in danger of stopping the show dead because the work is so dominated by the frantic soprano lead.

The opera is a study in contrasts: Elektra herself sustains the opera with four massive arias, three of which provide the opera both with its structure and its finest musical moments. Chrysothemis gets her own good number as well, as does Klytemnestra (to a lower tempt accompaniment). Interestingly, it is not the death of Klytemnestra but of Aegisthus (who is comparatively a minor character part of some five minutes), which prompts Elektra to go into her dance of jubilation. Musically, the opera is a contrast between moments of extremes: musical greatness and much ennui. Apart from the last twenty minutes or so, the best music falls to Elektra herself and to a lesser extent Chrysothemis. Klytemnestra is comparatively dull (she is the villain after all) and the material Strauss gives her is rather low temperature (after her furious arrival symphony, that is). After the arrival of Orestes, Strauss also seems to have gotten tired of the heavy chromaticism and the opera takes a more lyrical bent (apart from the notoriously bizarre vocals he gives to Aegisthus) although the heavy modernism continues to the curtain. For some reason Strauss seems transfixed at the idea of giving his tenors high B-flats for some reason, even the tenor slave half-way through the show gets one, only to never be seen or heard from again!

Orestes, of course, the baritone part, inspired a kind of wise-man music from Strauss, similar to that of Johanaan in Salome. Just the fact that this is much more lower temperature than the surrounding music makes it rather attractive. Ironically, for all the talk of this opera being atonal, it uses many diatonic concepts, including waltzes, and not too infrequently directly quotes the far more traditional Salome.

Why exactly Elektra herself does not complete the murders is never disclosed, even after she attempts (and fails) to get Chrysothemis to do it for her.

In spite of the fact that around half an hour of the opera sounds like the interview scene in Suor Angelica, Elektra can only be an alpha, if I love Salome just a bit more.

Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Richard Strauss: A Critical Guide. Grange Books, London: 1995. Ch.4. p. 55-71.

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