Four of Richard Strauss’s operas are masterpieces – Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Die Frau Ohne Schatten. The second of these, Elektra, is considered his most harmonically adventurous work. It is often said that Strauss retreated from modernism after Elektra. I’m not sure that’s true. He used the harmonic language suited for the story he was setting to music. One can’t imagine Der Rosekavalier written in the same musical language as the other three masterpieces.
In Elektra Strauss used every form of dissonance, chromaticism, and fluid tonality imaginable during the first decade of the 20th century. Yet unlike any other “modern” composer who wandered into this tonal jungle Strauss’s music is accessible, full of melodic inspiration, and dramatically apposite. Its visceral impact hits an audience like a tsunami. Strauss used an orchestra consisting of 120 players to create the sonic boom that is this score.
Hofmannsthal’s libretto is adapted from his play in turn derived from Sophocles’ play of the same name. Only seven of the more than 120 plays by the Greek Master survive in complete form. The story, of course, portrays the most dysfunctional family in human history.
Klytaemnestra has murdered her husband Agamemnon with the help of her paramour Aegisth. She killed him because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to gain a favorable wind and sail to Troy and war. This sacrifice happened before the start of the opera. She fears that her crime will be avenged by her children, Elektra, Chrysothemis, and their banished brother Orest. Elektra has managed to send her brother away while remaining behind to keep her father’s memory alive, but all the while, suffering the scorn of her mother and the entire court. She has obsessed over the desire to revenge her father to the point of madness. Incidently there is even more murder and foul deeds in the family tree that I won’t go into.
Eventually Orest returns and kills both his other and her lover. Elektra is so overcome with this double murder that she dances herself to death. Each death is presented below. They’re from the recording led by Georg Solti featuring Birgit Nilsson in the title role. Orest’s troubles are just beginning, but that’s another story.
When Orest leaves Elektra to kill their mother she realizes that she forgot to give him the axe that was used to kill their father. It doesn’t matter, he does the deed without it. Death of Klytaemnestra
Aegisth arrives shortly after Klytaemnestra’s murder. As he screams for help he cries ‘Doesn’t anyone hear me?’ Electra replies ‘Agamemnon hears you.’ Death of Aegisth
Finally, Elektra begins to dance. As she reaches the climax of her dance, she falls to the ground: Elektra is dead. Horrified, Chrysothemis calls for Orest whereupon the opera ends. Elektra Dance and Death