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Monday, February 20, 2017

The Richard Strauss Project: Elektra

Richard Strauss' fourth opera is black and white...and red all over.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The bloody axe used to kill Agamemnon is a central plot point of Strauss' Elektra.
Richard Strauss chose to follow up the whirlwind success of Salome with Elektra, an opera that shares several points of similarity. Both works have a heroine who descends into insanity,  horrific offstage murder (two this time) and take place in a single, intense act that lasts about an hour and a half. However, Elektra much more than Strauss repeating himself: it was a great leap forward.

The adaptation of Elektra chosen by Strauss was by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Elektra marks the beginning of a friendship and collaboration that would continue until the poet's death in 1929, and define the career of both men for over two decades. Hofmannsthal would prove to be the ideal collaborator for Strauss, and their correspondence makes for lively reading. Hofmannsthal adapted and edited the Sophocles version of the story, translating it into German and emphasizing the psychological terror and horror of the downfall of the House of Atreus.

In Hofmannsthal's stripped-downElektra , the heroine's focus is completely (one would say obsessively)  on the spirit of her murdered father and her intended victims. These are her mother, Queen Klytaemnestra, and the Queen's lover Aegisth. They hacked the king to pieces in his bath. As the curtain rises to three thunderous chords, Elektra is living like a dog in the front yard of the House, desperately waiting for her brother Orest to come home and avenge their father.

The score for Elektra uses Wagnerian leitmotifs to create thick, slab-like "walls" of sound, a claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes more and more oppressive as the story develops. We meet Elektra, her unhappy sister Chrysothemis (who only wants to escape from the family palace) and Klytaemnestra herself, a witch-like figure who enters to a nightmarish parade of sounds. Strauss' gift for depicting graphic imagery using orchestra and voice is used to full effect here, even experimenting (briefly) atonal music in Elektra's confrontation with her mother.

A stranger arrives with news of Orest's death. He proves to be Orest himself and as brother and sister recognize each other, Strauss deploys his orchestral master-stroke. Eight violists are told to put down their instruments and pick up violins, becoming a fourth choir of high voices in the strings. This trick elevates the texture of the opera, and can prove exhilarating to experience in the theater. It is also the lone moment relief before the nerve-wracking murders. They are followed by Elektra's ecstatic dance of triumph...and abrupt death.

Recordings Overview:
As with Salome, recordings of Elektra can be a matter of highly individualized personal preference, with listeners forced to rely on a choice of Strauss conductors and divas with enough lungpower to blast through the hellishly demanding title role. That said, listening to this work at home is more like watching a horror movie.  Also note, some recordings of Elektra (particuarly live ones) make minor cuts to the score. Here are some safe picks of a wonderfully un-safe opera.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon 1960)
Karl Böhm knew Strauss personally, and was actually the dedicatee of the composer's later opera Daphne. Here, he leads the powerful soprano Inge Borkh on a roller-coaster ride, with superb support from the Dresden players and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as a memorable and sensitive Orest.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca 1967)
This is harrowing stuff. Birgit Nilsson is a clarion Elektra using her powerful soprano like a well-oiled axe to slice through Strauss' orchestral textures. Georg Solti whips the Vienna forces into a fury and Regime Resnick's Klytaemnestra is the scariest mother of them all. You can practically hear her mind rotting. Not for the faint of heart.

Berlin Staatskapelle cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/WBC 1995)
A rare Strauss excursion for Barenboim featured Deborah Polaski as a potent Elektra and Waltraud Meier as a welcome alternative to Resnick's Klytaemnestra: cool and calculating. This matches the conductor's approach to the score. Alessandra Marc is Chrysothemis and Falk Struckmann is a brilliant Orest.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon 1997)
Thirty years after the classic Solti recording, the maverick Giuseppe Sinopoli uses his idiosyncratic conducting style to explode many of the clichés about this score. The Vienna Philharmonic play heroically, as always. Alessandra Marc had a brief moment of glory in the '90s and this recording shows why. Deborah Voigt (at her height as a Strauss soprano) is an excellent Chrysothemis. An acceptable alternative.

Making it this far into a long article deserves recognition, so here's the Recognition Scene, shot at the dress rehearsal from the 2016 Metropolitan Opera production of Elektra. That's Nina Stemme in the title role and Eric Owens as Orest.
Footage © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.