Major Operas | Elektra by Richard Strauss | Turn of the Century

Following Salome was no easy task, and Strauss felt strongly that he needed to tackle an entirely different subject – by preference a light, comic work. He had been in correspondence with the playwright Hofmannsthal and approached him with an idea for such a work. Hofmannsthal had other ideas, and was insistent that Strauss should take up his adaptation of Sophocles’ play Electra.

Like Salome, Elektra has a one-act structure and its central figure is an obsessive, destructive woman. Also like Salome, Strauss’s enthusiasm for the subject stemmed from watching a Max Reinhardt production of Hofmannsthal’s play. Elektra continues along the harmonic path of Salome, venturing further into dissonance and, at times, veering towards complete atonality, which is all at the service of the drama.

It is the psychological examination of character that makes both Elektra and Salome so compelling. Strauss’s taught, colourful and incisive score draws us into the fractured world on stage. He creates a world of raw emotion that smashes its way into our consciousness. Strauss was equivocal about Elektra, even to the extent of issuing a press statement to the effect that the work did not represent a break with tonality. Later in his life, he was often faced with accusations of backing away from a modernist path by not continuing in the same vein. It is probably fair to say, though, that the music fulfils the demands of the text. Strauss had always looked to extra-musical sources for inspiration and produced music that matched the subject.

Composed: 1906–08
Premiered: 1909, Dresden
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after Sophocles’ Electra

After the Trojan War, Agamemnon has been murdered by his wife Klytemnästra and her lover Aegisth. Agamemnon’s son Orest has been sent into exile. The elder daughter, Elektra, cannot forgive her mother. She is treated worse than the servants and lives only to take revenge.

The maids drawing water from the well in the palace courtyard at Mycenae show their contempt for Elektra. Only the fifth maid speaks up for her, and she is beaten by the overseer. Elektra duly appears and calls on the spirit of Agamemnon to show itself. She graphically describes his murder and prophesies how his murderers’ blood will pour into his grave, while Orest and their sister Chrysothemis dance with her in triumph. Chrysothemis has overheard Klytemnästra and Aegisth planning to imprison Elektra in a tower. She blames Elektra’s hatred of their mother for her own imprisonment in the palace. Why can she not accept that their father is dead and Orest will not return? She yearns for children and would prefer death itself to this living death. She pleads with Elektra to stay away from Klytemnästra, who is said to have dreamt about Orest.

Klytemnästra enters, raddled and covered with jewels and charms. Leaning on a stick, she wonders why she does not have the strength to rid herself of Elektra. Her confidantes try to dissuade her from speaking to Elektra, but she...

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