Go inside this production of Elektra with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
In the courtyard of Agamemnon’s palace, five maids discuss the erratic behavior of Elektra, who has lost her rightful place in the royal household and been condemned to a menial existence. One of the maids unleashes the hostility of her companions by declaring her loyalty to Elektra who, despite her strange ways, is still a royal princess and daughter of the late king. The overseer, who shares in the censure of Elektra, sends the maids inside, where they continue to abuse their companion.
Elektra enters the courtyard, brooding on the murder of her father and upon his unpunished assassins. She swears that she and her siblings, Orest and Chrysothemis, will dance at Agamemnon’s tomb when their vengeance will have set his soul at peace. Chrysothemis comes to warn Elektra that Klytämnestra and Aegisth are plotting to imprison her. She begs Elektra to flee with her from the tortured existence they must endure in the palace. Chrysothemis longs for a happier life – above all, to bear children. She advises her sister to avoid Klytämnestra, who the night before had been plagued by terrifying dreams. Elektra replies that she must speak to Klytämnestra, and Chrysothemis leaves as their mother approaches.
The sight of Elektra inspires fear in Klytämnestra and elicits hostile remarks from the queen’s confidante and trainbearer, who are sent away. Klytämnestra asks her daughter if she knows a remedy for the nightmares and the suffering they provoke. Elektra suggests that the sacrifice of an appropriate victim would end her mother’s torment. When Klytämnestra presses her for details,
Elektra exultantly reveals that the queen herself must be the victim whose blood is to be offered by the exiled Orest. Servants rush in to whisper news to Klytämnestra, who begins to laugh as if in triumph.
After the queen has left the courtyard, Elektra learns from Chrysothemis that the news inspiring such joy in Klytämnestra was the death of Orest. His legitimate claim to his father’s throne had threatened the power and lives of his mother and her paramour. Elektra refuses to believe her brother is dead, yet a young servant seems to confirm the news when he asks an older colleague for a horse to rush the tidings to Aegisth.
Elektra reveals to Chrysothemis that she has kept the axe that was used to murder their father. She had intended to give it to Orest so he could seek vengeance on Klytämnestra and Aegisth. Now there is no alternative but immediate action. Elektra’s request for help in the double murder horrifies Chrysothemis, who rushes away, leaving Elektra resolved to exact her revenge unaided.
A stranger enters, explaining that he is waiting to give Klytämnestra an eyewitness account of Orest’s death. This new confirmation of the awful news releases a torrent of grief in Elektra, who discloses her identity. The stranger – Orest himself, who had not previously recognized her – wonders that the dogs at the gate knew him, but his sister does not. Now aware that the man before her is her own brother, she is ecstatic.
Orest informs Elektra that he is on a mission of vengeance. His tutor appears, chiding the siblings for recklessly discussing their plans where they can be overheard. He tells Orest that Klytämnestra awaits, and the two men enter the palace. Almost immediately Klytämnestra’s shrieks ring out. The courtyard quickly fills with terrified servants, who flee to avoid fatal reprisals from Aegisth when he hears that Klytämnestra has been murdered.
When Aegisth reaches the courtyard, he finds no one there but Elektra. Although disturbed by her suddenly gentler and sweeter demeanor, he allows her to light his way across the threshold. Once inside, he is heard desperately calling for help. To his shouts of “Can no one hear me?” Elektra cries, “Agamemnon hears you!” Only a moment after Aegisth is killed, Chrysothemis and the maids run out to tell Elektra that Orest has avenged the murder of Agamemnon. Elektra performs a triumphal dance and then falls senseless to the ground. Chrysothemis rushes to the palace door, frantically calling for Orest.
Certain works are impossible to present onstage unless the right protagonist is on hand. One of those operas is Richard Strauss’s Elektra, which presents dramatic sopranos with their most awe-inspiring challenge. The title role is a veritable Matterhorn, replete with stupendous heights and depths of emotion requiring the ultimate in vocal, musical, and dramatic excellence.
This isn’t a one-woman opera. Remarkable artistry is required of the artists portraying the other principals in this drama: warm, womanly, desperate Chrysothemis, terrified and terrifying Klytämnestra, mysterious Orest, and arrogant Aegisth. Each role offers extraordinary opportunities to its interpreter, including a confrontation with the heroine that can produce some of the most vivid moments of any Elektra performance.
A few seasons ago Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, already a celebrated Brünnhilde and Isolde, made her eagerly awaited role debut as Elektra. At the Metropolitan Opera and the major houses of Vienna, Berlin, and Munich, ecstatic praise from press and public alike has confirmed Nina’s stature as a truly exceptional exponent of this role. She brings to it a uniquely warm, voluminous, deeply expressive voice, to which she adds incomparable musicality and extraordinary gifts as an actress. The power of her emotional communication will most certainly ensure an experience in the opera house that our audiences will long remember.
It’s exciting to welcome back to Lyric a recent Met Chrysothemis, the marvelous South African soprano Elza van den Heever, who dazzled Lyric earlier in her career as the sorceress Armida in Handel’s Rinaldo; and the riveting American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, whose Klytämnestra was recently a great success at San Francisco Opera. Our two debuting male principals are the grand-voiced Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson (Orest) and one of America’s most gifted singing actors, tenor Robert Brubaker (Aegisth).
Elektra is also a magnificent showpiece for a great orchestra. Strauss was one of the most brilliantly skilled orchestrators of his time – indeed, of any time. With this opera he created a panoply of astonishing colors, moving effortlessly from passages of the most exquisite intimacy to outbursts boasting unparalleled intensity. This score deserves a great Straussian on the podium, which we have in Donald Runnicles, in his Lyric debut. For years Donald has been one of my favorite conductors. He conducts an enormously varied repertoire, but at its heart is German romantic music. He and Nina Stemme have a longstanding professional association, and I know how excited they are to be working together at Lyric.
Sir David McVicar’s Elektra production delivers a punch to the solar plexus like no other Elektra I’ve seen. The world that set and costume designer John Macfarlane and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton have created with David is extraordinarily oppressive, threatening, and terrifying, in which the tragedy of the central characters comes devastatingly to life.
This will be an Elektra of truly epic proportions. We hope you’ll relish the beauty, the horror, the savagery – all the qualities that make this work one of the summits of opera.
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In its tight hour and forty minutes – the length of the average feature film – Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra manages to pack in enough terror, tension, and unexpected beauty to leave an audience weak at the knees. It was the sheer genius and creative synergy of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in this, their first collaboration, that spawned a work whose savage brilliance remains unique in the operatic canon.
It almost didn’t happen. Following the success of Salome, with its libretto based on Oscar Wilde's scandalous play, Strauss was drifting toward other tales out of history and the Bible. Hofmannsthal had been pursuing a collaboration with the elusive Strauss for years, during which time he successfully steered him away from taking on the Borgias, Semiramis, Saul and David, and even a comedy. (at would come later, with Der Rosenkavalier.) Finally, in 1905, Strauss saw Hofmannsthal’s stage version of Sophocles’s Elektra in Berlin, and knew that it should be his next opera. Hofmannsthal had, of course, made the ancient Greek drama newly relevant to a German-speaking world that was now embracing the revolutionary psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. Opera was ready to grow beyond the more broadly drawn protagonists of the nineteenth century and face the challenge of infusing itself with a new level of sexual and psychological insight. Salome had already been a harbinger of this trend, which would soon be taken up by other German and Austrian composers such as Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Alexander von Zemlinsky.
To Hofmannsthal’s visceral emotional poetry, Strauss brought a score that hit with the force of a sledgehammer. Audiences were stunned, and they remain so over a hundred years later. This uncompromising, cathartic work still has detractors among operagoers who would rather hear L’elisir d’amore or La bohème. Strauss pushed musical violence and brutality to its limits in Elektra, so much so that he never again composed another work so steeped in horror. Only in certain passages of Die Frau ohne Schatten would he again make use of such a nightmarish tonal palette. It was as if he had completely wrung out that aspect of himself – and then moved on. As director Rudolf Hartmann put it in Richard Strauss: The Staging of His Operas and Ballets, “Salome and Elektra – no matter how contrasted they may be – constitute an impressive foundation to Strauss’s dramatic work; they represent a chapter complete in itself, with no sequel.”
But what does Elektra require from those who actually perform it – and what does it take out of them? Nina Stemme, this season’s Elektra at Lyric, has sailed through the score and its huge orchestration numerous times with her full-scaled dramatic soprano voice. Yet a performance of Elektra always leaves its mark. “It’s all about how you learn the part,” she says. “You have to be very careful to savor the softer moments, and pace your voice so that it’s still in the best of shape for the key scene which, for me, is the Recognition Scene with Orest. It’s the most emotional one, but the scene with Klytämnestra is the most dramatically challenging one. So if you scream your vocal cords out of your throat, you are in deep trouble. Also, when you are singing Elektra, you are, at every moment, in the here and now. I remember the first time I sang it, and I was thinking, ‘Oh! I can’t believe she has this other big scene coming up!’”
Solitude is Stemme’s way of preparing herself for this taxing role. “On the day of the performance, I do tend to go into my own mental corridor, to focus on who I am for that performance. I want things to be as normal as possible. I only want my family around. Because it’s such a long day before Elektra starts. Once, the day of an Elektra performance in New York, I wanted to hide a bit, and so I went to an exhibition, but I was recognized. And for Elektra, I really want to stay in my bubble before I go onstage that night.”
It’s not an easy role to shake. Stemme says that “all the emotions of the opera, particularly the emotional climaxes, stay with me for a long time after each performance. The character of Elektra may be gone, but not the emotions of hers that I have sung. I try to just keep on and not do too much about it – otherwise, I don’t think my own family would be very happy! There are times when I have to tell myself, ‘Stop acting like Elektra! And don’t go for that axe!’”
For Lyric’s debuting conductor, Donald Runnicles, a night spent with Elektra is, if anything, invigorating. “I don’t ever feel exhaustion after conducting Elektra,” he says. “I feel elation. Certainly it’s a complex work to conduct and to keep together. But it doesn’t lead to exhaustion. If it did, that would mean there was something I hadn’t done right. Certainly, there is some emotional exhaustion, due to the roller-coaster you’ve just been on for 100 minutes. But it’s really not until a couple of hours later, or even the next morning, that I realize – ‘Hmmm…I conducted Elektra last night.’ It’s the same way with the Ring. At the end of any of the Ring operas, yes, I’m emotionally quite tired. But I could probably physically conduct another act!”
Runnicles and Stemme are close friends and colleagues, and they have done numerous performances of Elektra in Berlin together. Because of Strauss’s heavy orchestration, it’s essential for a conductor – and his orchestra – to be alert to the demands this opera makes on singers. “I think it’s primarily a matter of sensitizing the orchestra to the fact that there are people singing,” explains Runnicles. “You want them to be able to listen to the singers, to hear them from the pit. If it’s played really meticulously, and if the orchestra takes the dynamics seriously, there are very few places where you’ll have to reduce the dynamics. But that’s a conductor’s job – to make it very clear to the players that what they have in front of them is what they should be playing, and that they should not gravitate to the strongest dynamic. If the dynamics are played exactly as printed, there should be no huge balance problems with the sound between the pit and the stage. Of course, every opera house has a different acoustic, and this will be my first time at Lyric – so I plan to get out of the pit at some point during rehearsals and into the house to see how the balance is being maintained. The work is phenomenally orchestrated and phenomenally composed, and that’s what rehearsals are for – context, context, context.”
A role like Elektra demands such vocal weight and interpretive authority that a dramatic soprano must grow into it. It cannot be taken on in the early stages of a career. “I had heard that Elektra was so dramatic,” says Stemme, “and so difficult, that I waited as long as I could to sing it. Somehow my schedule took care of that by itself, once I had said yes to Isolde and Brünnhilde. And I tried to sing the Italian repertoire as long as possible. You know, Verdi doesn’t make it as easy to know the layers and emotions of his characters as a playwright like Hoffmannsthal does. It’s all there in the text. And Strauss responds to this text in the most fantastic way. Now I’m starting the Dyer’s Wife [in Die Frau ohne Schatten]. I don’t know if she’s exploding or imploding her emotions, but she can’t express them. Elektra is perfectly able to express them, but the Dyer’s Wife needs an entire opera to learn how to express herself!”
It’s said that Strauss’s own advice to Elektra conductors was that it should be conducted like “fairy-tale music.” Realistically, that can only be applied to one or two sections of the score, but it gives us an idea of how a conductor can harness his enormous orchestra and allow the voices to come through. “I think what he was getting at,” says Runnicles, “is that there are moments of heavy articulation, but there are also moments that should be played lightly. I think he’s also implying that the orchestra players need to be aware of their specific role in the melodic line, and the need to keep it in a Mendelssohnian vein. In movie footage of Strauss conducting his music – and he was a master conductor – you can see that he uses very minimal gestures. The smaller the gesture, the more lightly the orchestra will play. The horse doesn’t need to be flogged all the time.”
Following Elektra’s premiere, Strauss made a few pages of cuts in the score, totaling under a minute of music, to the scenes with Klytämnestra and with Orest. These cuts have now become standard practice, and will be observed in Lyric’s performances. “They were made largely to accommodate the stamina of the singers,” says Runnicles, “and I think the singers are grateful for them. Frankly, it’s not the best music in the score. Strauss realized that less was more. And I don’t think the cuts distort the structure, or interfere with the drama or the tension. We’re already impatient to get to the dénouement; the feeling is that you want to keep things moving, and the audience is eager to get to the climax. When this opera is done well, it just races by.”
Although Elektra flows smoothly, its structure is divided into four distinct major scenes, each with its own climax, and each building upon the previous one until the opera reaches its gruesomely celebratory conclusion. One of the many concerns for an Elektra conductor is to maintain the opera’s framework as an organic whole.
Runnicles does not see that as a problem. “In any given moment while I’m conducting,” he says, “I’m not thinking about structure, or about what’s going to happen a half an hour later. The score itself is so brilliantly paced that the biggest challenge is just doing what’s there. Just trying to realize what Strauss wants. If you can achieve what Strauss has written, then that’s really something. Don’t mess with it! If anybody is wondering what Runnicles’s Elektra is going to be like – well, I’ll be perfectly happy if what they hear is Strauss’s Elektra.”
Eric Myers has written for Opera News, Opera (U.K.), Time Out New York, Variety, and The New York Times. He is also the author of Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
Shortly before Lyric’s production of Elektra premiered in 2012, its original director, Sir David McVicar, responded to Sir David McVicar responded to questions from the company’s director of media relations, Magda Krance. (Edited by the company’s dramaturg, Roger Pines.)
What makes Elektra a great opera?
The score – it’s a combination of libretto and music that is simply a marriage made in heaven. This was Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s first collaboration with Richard Strauss, a turning point in both their lives. It was Hofmannsthal who made the relationship happen, having recognized something in the Salome score – Strauss’s music is, after all, so reflective of the time in which he lived. In Salome he was exploring his characters’ inner psychology, and Hofmannsthal knew Strauss could do the same with Elektra. This piece is really a wonderful meeting of minds, and on every level, it absolutely works. Elektra has been compared to a hunk of black granite: where Salome is shimmering and exotic, Elektra is brutal and uncompromising.
The era in which it was written is rather significant, isn’t it?
Yes, 1909 – think of Russia, with revolution happening initially in 1905-06, then 1911-14, then 1917-24. There’s a strong political element here that’s very interesting, in that we’re dealing with a closed society that needs to change – the old order is massacred. You can compare Elektra to a freedom-fighter! In Strauss’s closing bars you have one of the most chilling things in the opera: as Elektra dies, Chrysothemis turns and calls for Orest’s help, but the doors are barred shut. There is no explanation for that in Hofmannsthal’s text, but it’s very telling. And think about it – a regime change hardly ever solves anyone’s problems. this is a 20th-century political sensibility that Hofmannsthal brings to Greek myth, still very resonant for us now.
Is Elektra a piece that you wanted to stage for some time?
For a long, long, long time. I finally did Salome at Covent Garden five years ago, and that was also the fulfillment of a long-held ambition. Once I got it under my belt, I knew Elektra was the next one. It’s just so damned visceral. Even if we ignore the psychology and mythology, it’s totally gripping drama – I don’t think there’s anything in opera to compare with it. It’s kind of like an opera written by Quentin Tarantino in the way it notches up the tension. You know the explosion of violence has to come, and it’s incredibly shocking and cathartic when it does.
Elektra is the third Strauss opera you’ve directed. Chronologically speaking, you’ve zigzagged from the later with Der Rosenkavalier to the earlier, Salome, before arriving at Elektra.
Yes, working through Strauss’s musical language, experiencing him in a non-linear way – it’s certainly an interesting way of looking at Strauss’s music, from the most popular to the most controversial of his scores. When it premiered, Elektra was really shock-horror-shock-horror. This was the most arduous score ever written. Even Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who created the role of Klytämnestra, said it was insanity – screaming like the Furies, absolute chaos and anarchy. There were strikes by the orchestra, with people saying it wasn’t singable or playable or listenable. No one had ever heard such large orchestration, and the psychological density of it was difficult for the Austro-Hungarian-German public. Everything about the piece was disturbing.
And it’s still as difficult to perform as it was in that first performance.
But it’s such a well-written score! If the cast is true to the drama, they’ll find a way to sing it. Of course, it’s an opera for herculean, Olympically athletic singers. They have to be dramatic rather than careful. At the same time, they must have the stamina to get from A to Z – that’s a prerequisite. And they have to throw themselves into the drama, especially the three principal women. In singing and acting any role in the piece, you have to inhabit it 100 percent and simply lose yourself in it.
It’s a short, intense opera – shorter than a lot of films. Consider the Klytämnestra-Elektra scene: that’s a pretty complicated relationship. How do you flesh it out in barely 20 minutes?
I don’t have to, it’s all been done for me in the score. If it were any longer, it would be too long. Salome and Elektra are both short, yet not a bar too long – perfect pieces, both of them.
Our designer, John Macfarlane, was inspired by North African tribal traditions, and the set design is inspired by the bombed-out institutional buildings from the Bosnian-Croatian conflict.
We’ve actually made a decision to root the piece in an environment that’s mythological. I wanted to buck the trend of being too specific regarding placement of the story in our time, and to root it in an environment that is freer, avoiding the reductive clichés. We are dealing with resonant images of war, but also with mythology.
In speaking about Elektra, Anthony Freud has described it as an excellent introduction to opera for first-timers, especially those who appreciate powerful theater and film experiences.
I would agree, especially teenagers – it will blow their minds! Think of the anger expressed in this piece. It’s about rage, matricide, disempowerment between generations. It’s also about revolution and not accepting the status quo. The music will also grab young people – the sheer loudness of it. (You think a rock concert is loud?) This score screams from a very primal part of the psyche. In the end, that’s what is fundamentally gripping about the music and the story – they speak about primal impulses and family relationships that are not always healthy. Its Freudian connection speaks about rites of passage, psychological needs for children to supplant their parents. Very, very few people in the audience will find nothing to relate to in experiencing this opera.