Online opera guide and synopsis to Strauss’ ELEKTRA
Few operas can evoke such storms of applause at the end of a performance as Elektra. Its music and its leading role is unique in opera literature, and Strauss, the great tone painter, was able to go to the limits of his time with this music.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Allein! Weh, ganz allein! (Elektra’s monologue)
♪ Ich habe keine guten Nächte (Clytemnestra’s monologue)
♪ Orest! (Recognition scene)
♪ Elektra! Schwester! (Recognition scene)
♪ Ob ich nicht höre (Finale)
Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after his tragedy Elektra based on Sophocles' Greek play.
The main roles
Clytemnestra, wife and murderess of Agamemnon (mezzo-soprano) - Aegisth, lover of Clytemnestra (tenor) - Elektra, daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon (soprano) - Chrysothemis, sister of Elektra (soprano) - Orest, brother of Elektra (baritone)
A wonderful film version on DVD: DG with Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay, Caterina Ligendza and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau conducted by Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic and directed by Götz Friedrich or as a regular CD: DECCA with Birgit Nilsson, Maria Collier, Gerhard Stolze and Tom Krause conducted by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic..
Roles and Synopsis
The proximity to Salome
Strauss was 44 years old when he composed Elektra in 1908 and was a peak of his carreer both as a composer and as a conductor. He had completed Salome a few years earlier. whicht catapulted him into the avant-garde of the European music world. Three years after Salome, it was Elektra’s turn. No one would deny the kinship of Elektra and Salome, for there are many parallels: the proximity concerns the expressiveness of the music as much as the characters of the opera. The respective main characters Elektra/Salome, Clytemnestra/Queen and Aegisth/Herod are soulmates in terms of content and music and the plot shows great parallels. Strauss was hesitant about this closeness to Salome when Hugo von Hofmannsthal presented Elektra as subject for an opera. Strauss was fascinated by the story and he suggested the creation of a libretto, when he swa a magnificent production of Max Reinhardt’s together with Hofmannsthal in 1903. But after the composition of Salome the danger of another version of this opera seemed to be too great for him. Finally Strauss recognized that the material offered him exactly the scenes he needed for his music and he set to work.
Elektra was Strauss’ first collaboration with Hofmannsthal, which was followed by a 20-year influential artistic partnership. In Elektra, Hofmannsthal closely followed Sophocles’ literary model in terms of content. However, he went far beyond the antique model when designing the personalities of the leading roles. He drew on the work “Studies on Hysteria”, by Breuer and Siegmund Freud. The result was a text that was kept incredibly gloomy, one can almost speak of a study of human abysses. This applies especially to the main characters Elektra and Clytemnestra. He drew the picture of two obsessed women, and the opera is virtually hostage to their traumatic states. Just as Clytemnestra is tormented by her sleepless nights, Elektra is driven and obsessed by her thoughts of revenge. Hoffmannsthal draws two figures who are physically and physically shattered and feel cornered like hunted animals.
Strauss consciously sought these points of departure in terms of content. He wanted to use these states of mind as a springboard to enhance musical expression and to go one step further than with Salome. With Elektra, Strauss consolidated his reputation as a leading composer of the avant-garde, which he had earned with his symphonic music (e.g. ein Heldenleben/A hero’s life) and with his Salome. In no other opera did Strauss go further musically than in Elektra. He felt, however, that he did not want to cross the Rubicon to atonality, which Berg, Schönberg & Co. took.
The disciples of the avant-garde idolized their epigones, but also quickly dropped them again, which Strauss had to experience two years later when he composed his (nostalgic) Rosenkavalier. “I don’t conduct sugar water”, the young Otto Klemperer let the audience know, and Strauss soon had to painfully realize that he was counted among the conservatives.
As with Salome, Strauss wrote the opera for a huge orchestra, with which he was able to express all facets of human feelings. Large parts of the score are written in dissonant and chromatic music to draw the abysses and injuries of the souls and the despair of the characters. Forty wind instruments and large percussion instruments literally “shout” the dissonances from the orchestra pit. Among them are Wagner tubas and Heckelphon (a kind of bass oboe developed a few years earlier by the Heckel company).
He has purposefully written individual passages in harmonious euphony, including the role of Chrysothemis and Elektras recognition scene.
Strauss used a kind of leitmotiv system in this opera, which extends over the entire score and is very complex in its structure. The motifs are constantly subdivided, layered and altered, repeatedly leading to a kind of polyatonality where major chords collide with minor chords.
Except for the opening scene, we hear mainly monologues and duets. Trios or quartets hardly ever occur, and choir performances are rare. The mix of chamber theatre and giant orchestra leads to a peculiar tension.
The role of Elektra
This role occupies a special position in opera literature. No other character, not even Salome or Lady Macbeth, has ever been set in such excessive musical tones in her obsession and drive. Elektra is constantly on stage and is always the centre of the stage action. The voice of Elektra has to sing non-stop against a large orchestra, which requires the conductor to take great care in handling the orchestral volume so as not to overtax and drown out the voice of Elektra but to let the border to madness be felt.
After less than 2 hours Singer and the audience are both exhausted and the stage curtain falls.
An opera in one act
Like Salome, Elektra is a one-act play. The dramaturgy almost completely dispenses with a division into scenes and, in Wagnerian manner, does not allow for a break, to maximize the effect on the listener.
At the premiere, the opera was received with restraint. Although it was quickly performed in many opera houses, the reactions remained mixed. Acclaimed by the avant-gardists, it was critically received by the conservatives.
ELEKTRA ACT I
Synopsis: In the courtyard of Clytemnestra’s palace in Mycenae. Servants do their work at the draw well. They get excited about Elektra, who has been living in the house like a shadow, with tangled hair and wild look.
With brutal beats of the orchestra, the Agamemnon motif, the curtain rises and the haunting cries of the maids “Where is Elektra” force the listener onto the front edge of his chair right at the beginning.
Wo bleibt Elektra – Solti / div.
The impressive Böhm / Friedrich film adaptation
Synopsis: When Elektra appears, the maids disappear. She is tormented by the thoughts of her father’s murder. Many years ago her mother and her lover Aegisth brutally beat her father to death in the bathroom of the house. Since then she has been thinking of atoning for this blood act against her beloved father.
Strauss wrote a dazzling music to this long monologue of Elektra, one of the highlights of the opera. The orchestra whips Elektra relentlessly as the shameful murder takes place before her eyes. Only briefly does the music brighten as she imagines, as if in a trance, that her father is reappearing. Accompanied by delicate string tones, she remembers her father. In the last part of this monologue the music becomes martial and triumphant with her thoughts of revenge.
We hear a recording from the magnificent film adaptation by the director Götz Friedrich and the conductor Karl Böhm from 1981. Böhm (born in 1894) was a long-time personal friend of the composer, and it was his heart’s desire that he should be allowed to complete this production. Shortly before the end of the production he died at the age of 87. Fortunately the work had progressed enough, to produce the film, which finally became a great monument.
In this excerpt we hear Leonie Rysanek, a native of Vienna and one of the great character actresses of the post-war period of Strauss and Wagner roles .
Allein, weh ganz allein – Rysanek
Synopsis: Her sister Chrysothemis appears and tells her that her mother plans to lock Elektra in the tower. Chrysothemis is desperate, she suffers from the terrible situation of her family. She is young and beautiful and she dreams of children and life in a happy family.
Chrysothemis is the musical opposition to Elektra. Her music is tonal and soft and the melodies are tender.
Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren – della Casa
Synopsis: She says that Clytemnestra hasn’t rested at night for years. Again and again she dreams that she is being beaten to death by her son Orest, whom she banished from her house when he was still a child. Clytemnestra appears with her entourage.
Wild and grotesque music accompanies the appearance of Clytemnestra.
Es geht ein Lärm los – Solti
Synopsis: Her eyes are disfigured by the lack of sleep and her body is covered with amulets that are supposed to protect her from the curse of the nightmare. She accuses the gods of eternally tormenting her with nightmares.
Strauss took this work to the limits of tonality and explicitly described this Clytemnestra scene as the closest point towards atonality.
Clytemnestra is one of the classical character roles that singers sing in the “autumn of their career”. We listen to Astrid Varnay, who herself was one of the most outstanding representatives of the Elektra. See this impressive scene from the Friedrich/Böhm film adaptation.
Ich will nichts hören – Varnay
Strauss – master of tone painting
Synopsis: Clytemnestra wants to turn to Elektra, because her daughter knows her well and could perhaps free her from the nightmares. Her confidants warn her about the “wrong” Elektra, but she objects that their advice has brought no improvement. She wants to be alone with her daughter and sends her confidants away . She describes her terrible nights in which her soul wishes to be dead and asks her for advice.
With obvious pleasure Strauss composed the arrival of the amulet covered Clytemnestra. Teasing 32th motifs make the sparkling of the stones audible. Strauss was a master of onomatopoeic music, which he mastered already in his early years as a composer of symphonic poems. Strauss left one of his unforgettable bonmots on the subject of onomatopoeia: As is well known, he had a special relationship with beer, for his mother was the granddaughter of the founder of the Hacker-Pschorr brewery, one of the great breweries in Munich. Strauss boldly dared to claim that if he described a beer musically, one could even hear the brand.
In this scene we hear Martha Mödl, one of the great character actresses of the post-war years.
Ich habe keine gute Nächte – Mödl
Synopsis: Elektra recommends her to offer a human sacrifice to the gods. Clytemnestra is curious and wants to know more. Elektra says that only Orest can make the sacrifice. At his name a shiver goes through the mother’s body, didn’t she forbid Elektra to mention his name? Clytemnestra claims hypocritically that Orest has gone insane and lives with dogs. Elektra believes none of this. She knows that Clytemnestra fears his revenge. When asked who should be the victim, Elektra says the mother herself should be.
We hear this dramatic passage in the recording by Solti. His studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra occupies a special position in the discography. Solti’s approach from the 1960s was perceived as musically brute, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, together with Elektra Birgitt Nilsson, took this approach without compromise. The Solti recording is one of Birgit Nilsson’s great recordings.
Was bluten muss – Nilsson
The terrible turn
Synopsis: Clytemnestra is shocked. There her servants appear and whisper to her. Suddenly, a hysterical laughter sounds from her mouth.
The mother laughs when she hears about the death of her son.
Ach Lichter – Ludwig
Synopsis: Elektra learns the reason for this from her sister who has hurried to her. Orest is dead. Elektra is shocked, because she hoped Orest would come back to take revenge.
Orest ist tot – Madeira / Nilsson
Synopsis: A servant rides off to bring Aegisth the joyful news of Orest’s death. Elektra urges her sister that now the sisters must commit the murder of her mother. For this purpose she has kept the axe with which her father was beaten to death. Chrysothemis is paralyzed. Elektra begs her to help with the revenge. But her sister refuses.
Elektra tries to enchant her sister. With an aria-like singing in innocent major key she tries to persuade her sister to commit the cruel deed.
Nun muss es von uns geschehen – Rysanek / Borkh
Elektra recognizes her brother – the poignant recognition scene
Synopsis: Feverishly Elektra digs up the axe. A mysterious man appears. He claims to be the messenger of the news of Orest’s death. He asks for the way to Clytemnestra. When Elektra tells him about her situation, the man reveals himself as her brother Orest, who has come to take revenge on her mother. He is dismayed how Clytemnestra let her daughter suffer. Elektra is overjoyed to see her brother again. She is ashamed before him that she has sacrificed her youth and beauty for the years of grief.
A poignant scene takes place. When Orest reveals herself, Elektra can only stammer the name of her brother. After this incredulous amazement, a tender melody sounds and announces Elektra’s brotherly love. Love and triumph unite to the warmth of music that has never been heard before in this work.
Orest! – Rysanek
We hear this highlight of the opera in a second interpretation, sung by Kirsten Flagstadt. Along with Birgitt Nilsson, the Norwegian was the most famous of the highly dramatic sopranos of the twentieth century. Her career preceded that of the Swedish soprano, and she was the only one who could compete with the Swedish soprano in terms of vocal power, even surpassing her.
Orest! – Flagstadt
The murder scene
Synopsis: Orest’s companion admonishes him to enter the palace quickly to commit the crime. When they are gone, Elektra finds that she has forgotten to give Orest the axe. Suddenly the death cry of Klytämnestra is heard in the house. Now the whole house is on its feet and hears about the crime.
Accompanied by ghostly bass sounds, Orest makes his way to Clytemnestra’s bedroom. We do not see the murder on stage, but only hear a Clytemnestras frightened cries, shrill wind instruments and the rattle of the dying Clytemnestra..
Ich hab ihm das Beil nicht geben können – Borkh / Schech
Synopsis: Now Aegisth appears. He has learned of Orest’s death and wishes to speak to the messenger. Hypocritically Elektra shows him the way to Orest. He enters the house and is killed by him. Chrysothemis appears and triumphantly tells of the appearance of Orest and the revenge killing.
We hear this scene in Beecham’s recording from 1947, which is one of the great moments of the Elektra discography, not least because of Lyuba Welitsch’s Chrysothemis. Two years later, Welitsch herself was to celebrate one of the greatest theatre triumphs of the 20th century as Salome at the Met (more about this in the opera portrait of Salome: https://opera-inside.com/salome-by-richard-strauss-the-opera-guide/#Ah
Elektra! Schwester! – Welitsch
We hear the scene in a second version: Inge Borkh and Lisa della Casa as Elektra and Chrysothemis were a dream couple at the Salzburg Festival in 1957. For Inge Borkh the role of Elektra was the role of her life, she can be heard on 6 total recordings! Her soprano was not that of a classical highly dramatic Soprano. It was somewhat slimmer in the middle register, yet glistening in the high register. The live recording at the Salzburg Festival with Mitropoulos was probably her best recording.
Elektra! Schwester! – Borkh / della Casa
Elektra’s wild revenge dance
Synopsis: The two sisters fall into each other’s arms. Chrysothemis hurries to her brother and Elektra collapses dead after a wild dance.
The famous, surreal dance scene with the ecstatic music begins in the recording at 8:30 a.m. In it, a major melody fights against a repeated minor triad, creating a spooky final effect of the opera.
Ob ich nicht höre (Finale) – Rysanek / Varnay
Recording recommendation of the opera
A wonderful film adaption on DVD:
DG with Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay, Caterina Ligendza and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under the direction of Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; directed by Götz Friedrich.
Or as a regular CD:
DECCA with Birgit Nilsson, Maria Collier, Gerhard Stolze and Tom Krause under the direction of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on ELEKTRA by Richard Strauss.