Great moments in opera: Elektra

May 9, 2011

When I think of Richard Strauss as an opera composer, I tend to think of his civilized dramas and gentle comedies such as Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Capriccio. His early opera Elektra reminds me that there was another side to his art. Elektra is strident, fierce, saturated with dissonance, and drenched in blood. It maintains a tone of frenzied intensity almost from beginning to end. It is, I imagine, difficult to love — but, then again, so is the character whom it portrays.

The libretto is quite faithful to Sophocles’ tragic drama, apart from the fact that the Chorus does not appear. Elektra, determined to avenge the murder of Agamemnon, her father, is awaiting the return of her brother, Orestes. The murderess is, of course, their mother, Clytemnestra, who has since re-married. Elektra lives now in the shadows, haunting her father’s grave, consumed with anger and hatred for her mother. The central action of the drama is the long-awaited return of Orestes (disguised and bearing cunning tidings of his own death) and the brutal slaughter of Clytemnestra and her husband.

The great bulk of the stage time, here as in Sophocles’ original, is given over to speeches and one-on-one conversations. Elektra speaks first with her sister Chrysothemis, trying to persuade her to join in the revenge, and then with her mother, each threatening the other in a very horrifying exchange. (Interestingly, Sophocles allows Clytemnestra a persuasive defence — that she killed Agamemnon to avenge his earlier murder of their daughter, Iphigenia — but, unless I missed it, Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal deny her that comfort.)

The music of Elektra is, as I said above, harsh and frequently dissonant. Inspired, I assume, by Wagner’s example, the music flows like a bloody river, restless and often torrential. Strauss abuses tonality throughout, but, like Wagner before him, he honours it in the breach, for the expressive power of the music — its power to express horror, vengeance, and agony — relies on our having tonal expectations for him to violate. The result is not easy to listen to, and certainly not beautiful, but it does, if only by sheer force, make an impression.

This opera is unusual insofar as it is dominated by female voices: we are, I believe, well into the second half before the first male voice is heard, and that in passing. Further along there are extended passages for Orestes and for Aegisthus (Clytemnestra’s new husband), but the finale is reserved again for female voices only. I am not aware of any other opera which tips the vocal balance so far toward the women.

I have chosen two excerpts to highlight. I apologize in advance that they are both rather long; this is not an opera that moves quickly. Both are taken from a DVD performance that I watched this week, with Leonie Rysanek singing the lead role, and with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Bohm.

The first excerpt begins when Elektra finally recognizes Orestes, who has been away from home for so many years, and for whom she has waited, longing for the day when he will help her to avenge their father’s death. Unfortunately there are no subtitles on this clip, but the acting is so good that I think the drama comes through anyway. (A rather bad English translation is available here; search for “List! No man stirreth!”) Orestes is played here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The other excerpt is the opera’s finale, which is substantially a duet between Elektra and her sister, Crysothemis. The murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have been done, and their bloody, bloated, and hideous corpses lie on the stage. In the closing pages of the score Elektra begins a frenzied dance of victory that ends with her collapsing dead beside the bodies of those whose deaths she had so long sought. This clip does have English subtitles, so further words from me are superfluous.

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