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Elektra - Synopsis
An Opera by Richard Strauss

Opera in one act by Richard Strauss; words by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Produced: Dresden, January 25, 1909. Manhattan Opera House, New York, in a French version by Henry Gauthier-Villars, and with Mazarin as Elektra.


CLYTEMNESTRA, wife of Aegisthus……………………. Mezzo-sorpano
[Elektra and Chrysothemis are Clytemnestra's daughters by the murdered king Agamemnon]
AEGISTRUS………………………………………………. Tenor
ORESTES…………………………………………………. Baritone
Preceptor of Orestes; a confidant; a train bearer; an overseer of servants; five serving women; other servants, both men and women, old and young.

Time: Antiquity.
Place: Mycenae.

Storck, in his Opera Book, has this to say of Von Hofmannsthal’s libretto: "The powerful subject of the ancient myth is here dragged down from the lofty realm of tragedy, to which Sophocles raised it, to that of the pathologically perverse. With a gloomy logic the strain of blood-madness and unbridled lust is exploited by the poet so that the overwhelming effect of its consequences becomes comprehensible. None the less, there is the fact, of no little importance, that through its treatment from this point of view, a classical work has been dragged from its pedestal.

The inner court of the palace in Mycenae is the scene of the drama. Since Clytemnestra, in league with her paramour, Aegisthus, has compassed the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, her daughter Elektra lives only with the thought of vengeance. She exists like a wild beast, banished from the society of human beings, a butt of ridicule to the servants, a horror to all, only desirous of the blood of her mother and Aegisthus in atonement for that of her father. The murderers too have no rest. Fear haunts them.

Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, is entirely unlike her. She craves marriage. But it is in a disordered way that her desire for husband and child is expressed. Clytemnestra also is morbidly ill. Deeply she deplores her misdeed, but for this very reason has completely surrendered herself to the unworthy Aegisthus. So frightfully do her dreams torment her that she even comes to seek help from the hated Elektra in her love in the inner court. It is the latter’s first triumph in all her years of suffering. But it is short-lived, for Clytemnestra mocks her with the news that Orestes has died in a distant land. A terrible blow this for Elektra, who had hoped that Orestes would return and wreak vengeance on the queen and Aegisthus. Now the daughters must be the instruments of vengeance. And as Chrysothemis, shocked, recoils from the task, Elektra determines to complete it alone. She digs up in the courtyard the very axe with which her father was slain and which she had buried in order to give it to her brother on his return.

But the message regarding the death of Orestes was false. It was disseminated by her brother in order to allay the fears of the murderers of his father and put them off their guard. The stranger, who now enters the court, and at first cannot believe that the half-demented woman in rags is his sister, finally is recognized by her as Orestes, and receives from her the axe. He enters the palace, slays Clytemnestra and, upon the return of Aegisthus, pursues him from room to room and kills him. Elektra, her thirst for vengeance satisfied, under the spell of a blood-madness, dances, beginning weirdly, increasing to frenzy, and ending in her collapse, dead, upon the ground, where, since her father’s death, she had grovelled waiting for the avenger.

As in "Salome," so in "Elektra" there is a weft and woof of leading motifs which, lacking the compactness, firmness, and unmistakable raisons d’être of the leading motives in the Wagner music-dramas, crawl, twist, and wind themselves in spineless convolutions about the characters and the action of the piece. In "Salome" the score worked up to one set climax, the "Dance of the Seven Veils." In "Elektra" there also is a set composition. It is a summing up of emotions, in one eloquent burst of song, which occurs when Elektra recognizes Orestes. It may be because it came in the midst of so much cacophony that its effect was enhanced. But at the production of the work in the Manhattan Opera House, it seemed to me not only one of Strauss’s most spontaneous lyrical outgivings, but also one of the most beautiful I had ever heard. Several times every year since then, I have been impelled to go to the pianoforte and play it over, although forced to the unsatisfactory makeshift of playing in the voice part with what already was a pianoforte transcription of the orchestral accompaniment.

Mme. Schumann-Heink, the Clytemnestra of the original production in Dresden: "I will never sing the role again. It was frightful. We were a set of mad women… There is nothing beyond ‘Elektra.’ We have lived and reached the furthest boundary in dramatic writing for the voice with Wagner. But Richard Strauss goes beyond him. His singing voices are lost. We have come to a full stop. I believe Strauss himself sees it." -- And, indeed, in his next opera, "Der Rosenkavalier," the composer shows far more consideration for the voice, and has produced a score in which the melodious elements are many.

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