Pity the legendary royal families of ancient Greece. Their stories, so incredibly complex, rarely end well. Blood feuds abound, and seldom are they fully resolved. Richard Strauss’ and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera, Elektra, debuted in Dresden in 1909, bringing Sophocles’ account of the Argive house of Agamemnon to a modern iteration. In ancient Athens, everyone would have known the story of Electra before they’d even seen Sophocles’ telling of it.
The story of how Clytemnestra conspired with her lover Aegisthus to murder her husband Agamemnon upon his return from Troy, and the woe that befalls Electra as result. Electra has become an outcast in her own royal house; she’s treated as though a slave, hardly better than the dogs. She has no chance of marriage, and her sole cause is the vengeance of her father’s death. She doesn’t bother to hide her enmity toward her mother and Aegisthus, and to say the least, this makes her dangerous. Electra has a sister, Chrysothemis who’s also a victim of the regicide, but she lacks Electra’s incorrigible ferocity and resolve. Electra’s duty to herself, the state, and the gods has taken a toll, however. Greek tragedies specialize in impossible situations, e.g. the duty to kill one’s mother, etcetera, and Electra has been driven half-crazy by it all. Electra’s one hope is the return of her brother Orestes, with whom she must collude in the death of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. But Orestes has been gone from Mycenae for years. One legend has it that he was smuggled safely away by his nurse following his father’s murder. Electra doesn’t know if he shall ever return, or even if he’s dead or alive.
In the opera von Hofmannsthal expands on Electra’s and Clytemnestra’s fraught relationship. Clytemnestra is haunted by nightmares and never-ending guilt, and she wants to know what sacrifice she might make to please the gods and so end her torment. Unwisely, Clytemnestra seeks Electra’s counsel, only to hear Electra allude to her desire for the queen’s doom, wherein, it is Clytemnestra herself who shall be the sacrifice. Richard Strauss’ febrile score illuminates the psychodrama of daughter and mother trapped in the moral and ultimately mortal battle from which neither can escape. Elektra becomes a gripping character-study, and von Hofmannsthal preserves and extends the obvious air of decadence found in Sophocles’ original text. Strauss and von Hofmannsthal manage to serve-up a virtual Schadenfreude-fest that regardless its virtues can leave opera audiences feeling sullied and culpable themselves.
Strauss’ score is a remarkable manifestation of late Romanticism in music, with one of the largest orchestras ever specified for opera. Yet it also bears all the hallmarks of music that’s about to become modern. Obviously influenced by Wagner, Strauss nonetheless established his own unique voice. The score’s narrative arc is not just one thing: typical of modern operas to come, it shifts dissonant and melodic idioms and moods abruptly, announcing the difficulty of composition in the new era. Strauss has a command of musical resources that can yield everything from lurid melodrama, to elegiac tenderness, and, the brute force of tragedy.
This year’s production of Elektra at the Metropolitan features a solid cast with Christine Goerke in the title role. Goerke has sung Electra prior in London, at Carnegie Hall in concert version, and she’s already making it one of her signature roles. Goerke’s dramatic soprano is a big and versatile instrument, and she attains a pure rendering of this strenuous part without strain. Actually, I hope that as Ms. Goerke grows into this role, she may become somewhat less interested in each and every note, and strive for a more demonstrative dramatic lyricism instead. As it goes, Goerke has made an impressive debut as Electra in this Metropolitan production by the late Patrice Chéreau, and there were moments in the final scene of the opera where her fulsome voice and the orchestra combined such that the music sounded something like a force of nature.
Singing with Ms Goerke were Michaela Schuster as Clytemnestra, Elza van den Heever as Chrysothemis, and Mikhail Petrenko as Orest. Michaela Schuster made an especially statuesque Clytemnestra, looking every bit the royal, and Elza van den Heever shone throughout with a dulcet and penetrating version of Chrysothemis. It was especially fascinating to see Metropolitan conductor-designate Yannick Nézet-Séguintake on Strauss’ stupendous and demanding score, with its oversized orchestra and massive bevy of strings. Nézet-Séguinbrought brings a youthful immediacy and deftness of touch to Elektra, and yet there was no sacrifice of idiom or unnecessary striving after-effect. The bringing-in of Nézet-Séguinis is one of the best things that has happened at the Metropolitan Opera of late, and surely this portends a bright future for opera in New York.
The sets by Richard Peduzzi for this production of Elektra presented an appropriately spare vision of the palace at ancient Mycenae. Colors of the set and costumes are muted, except for the brilliant red carpet brought out to mark Clytemnestra’s arrival. Other productions of the opera, such as the one in Salzburg of 2010 may be regarded as exhibiting a more expressionist and intense evocation of the characters and plot of Elektra. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are to die, of course, and in the Metropolitan’s production we are not denied the spectacle of their stilled bodies, brought forward into the merciless light on a raised plinth.
There is something improbable about the Greek tragedies: barely anyone ever emerges victorious in them, or escapes death in the end. It’s all rather like examining the exposed Id of humankind, albeit through the prism of an ancient culture that is no longer entirely accessible to us. Even so, these ornate ships in bottles live on in our time, pointing to the mysterious and dire in the human condition and psyche. They reveal actualities that can be evoked, but never entirely apprehended for what they signify. This is why they are poetry and music.
Donald Lindeman is New York City Art and Opera Critic for Riot Material magazine. Mr. Lindeman majored in Art History at Colgate University, BA, 1974, and earned his MA in Art History, Columbia University, New York, 1976. From1993 to 2007, he was indexer and then Assistant Editor at Art Index, H.W. Wilson Co (metadata since sold to EBSCO). His MA thesis was “The Art of Paul Kleein Transition: 1918-1925.”