by Roderick Conway Morris

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More Sophocles Than Psychoanalysis in 'Elektra'

By Roderick Conway Morris
MUNICH 26 November 1997


The psychiatrist's couch can loom large over Richard Strauss's 'Elektra' and the temptation, in an era of modern-dress 'director's opera,' metaphorically or even literally to drape the eponymous heroine on the shrink's chaise longue can be overwhelming. Happily the Bavarian State Opera avoids such clichés in its splendid new production, and succeeds in being both true to the original material and adventurous in its staging.

'Elektra' was premiered in Dresden in 1909, and performed the following year at the Manhattan Opera House (the Met judged it too sensational to put on) and Covent Garden. Strauss had already achieved profitable notoriety with his musically opulent depiction of perverse sexuality in his version of Oscar Wilde's 'Salome' in 1905, and the violence of both words and music in 'Elektra' provoked hardly less discussion.

But much as Freud's theories were certainly in the air when 'Elektra' was written, the nightmarish intensity of the graphically lurid libretto, provided by the Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who went on to collaborate with Strauss on 'Der Rosenkavalier'), is more akin to the imagery of fin-de-siècle symbolist painters, such as Gustave Moreau and Franz von Stuck, than to the language of suppressed childhood traumas and case studies in hysteria, and the mainsprings of the action still owe more to Sophocles than psychoanalysis.

Indeed, the Hofmannsthal version of the story of Electra's and her brother Orestes's killing of their mother, Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, in revenge for the usurping couple's murder of the siblings' father, Agamemnon, follows the Greek dramatist's narrative fairly closely.

The atmosphere of oppression and portentous gloom at the regicides' court is brilliantly and economically suggested by Herbert Wernicke's set, a vast black slab that almost completely fills the proscenium arch and opens and closes by skewing backward on a diagonal pivot. At the start of the opera this monolithic door tips open only a fraction, to allow the Maids, who constitute the Chorus, and Electra herself to crawl out from underneath it, and only later opens wider to reveal a steep, towering staircase bathed in blood-red light, the lofty, grimly archaic-structure of Wernicke's setting perfectly echoing the overbearing architecture of Strauss's score.

'Elektra' employed the largest operatic orchestra Strauss ever mustered, and the regimental-size brass and woodwind forces create a barbaric maelstrom of turbulent sound. In this opera the composer went as far into dissonance and atonality as he was to venture, drawing back in his subsequent work as from the edge of an abyss. One critic described the music as 'abominably ugly,' but the jarring, grating whirl of notes and voices artfully conveys the mounting horror of this one-act drama of 'unending climaxes.' And the ebb and flow of the cacophony also paves the way for the most moving climax in the entire piece -- the moment when Electra recognizes her brother, who has come in disguise to perform the dreadful deed.

The opera is dominated by the three leading female roles, and Gabriele Schnaut (Electra), Marjana Lipovsek (Clytemnestra) and Nadine Secunde (Electra's sister, Chrysothemis) all performed with verve and skill.

Schnaut was especially convincing as the half-mad Electra, managing to create a real sense of pathos at the heroine's predicament, but also making us justifiably nervous with the malignant grins and expressions of gloating satisfaction that pass fleetingly across her face at the delightful thought of seeing her mother and her lover violently dispatched into the next world. Secunde, too, was good as the indecisive, frightened Chrysothemis, a not particularly brave person, torn between loyalty to her sister and the desire to conform with tyranny in the hope of achieving a 'normal' life. And the State Opera's orchestra, under the direction of Peter Schneider, gave an energetic but controlled interpretation of a challenging score.

There will be repeat performances of 'Elektra' at the Munich Opera Festival on July 17 and 22.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024