The Royal Opera House has just revived its production of Strauss’ Elektra. Oddly enough, I think I saw this production when it was first put on in 2003 as part of my third year undergraduate unit on classical reception, but that was quite a long time ago and I’ve got better at both listening to opera and analysing classical reception since then. The opera is Strauss’ version of the episode in the Oresteia cycle when Orestes returns home to kill his mother, first sending a false report that he has been killed in a chariot race in order to allay her suspicions and let him get close to her in his guise as an eye-witness to the fatal accident. The libretto, written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, started off as a adaptation of Sophocles’ version of this story, but as is the way with myth, became the poet’s own retelling, which emphasises the emotional currents of the story in a way that complements Strauss’ powerful music. It’s also an extremely compressed opera – it only lasts ninety minutes (no interval), and basically takes you through a rollercoaster of conflicting and extreme emotions. I didn’t notice how drawn in I had become until the curtain fell and I realised how much I’d been holding my breath. Christine Goerke is sensational as Elektra, and there wasn’t a weak performance among the rest of the cast – the deep grumbling bass of Iain Paterson’s Orest, when he finally appears, was particularly effective, Michaela Schuster offered a superb power-mad and unhinged Klytemnestra, and Adrianne Pieczonka created a Chrysothemis who stood in stark contrast to her sister but not in head-on conflict (which, given the score, is much harder than it sounds). All of which stands as a recommendation for an evening of stunning music and performance, although be quick if you’re in London as the last performance is in mid-October.
Putting aside the performance component (although that is very much in this particular production’s favour), what of the classical reception element? What strikes me is that way in which both Strauss and Hofmannsthal picked up on the emotional trauma of the mythic story. The score reflects it, and so does the structure of the piece – Elektra is on stage for most of the ninety minutes, and the music itself is virtuosic. A poster reproduced in the program from the 1910 premier in London promises “the most arduous score ever written” (not to mention the puntastically dreadful assurance that this is “the opera that will ‘Elektrify’ London”), and it’s not far wrong – it’s technically highly demanding. I’ve never seen a production before where water bottles have formed part of the set and swigging from them has been choreographed in – but I can’t see any other way of a singer surviving, frankly. What all this highlights to me is that the emotional punch of this episode is what caught Strauss and Hofmannsthal, and that is what they seek to bring out most from the source material.
Part of that appears in the characterisation of the two sisters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, and the two very different ways that they cope with the limbo in which they are stuck. Elektra broods, obsessing over her father, preserving the axe with which he was killed for Orest, seeking revenge and the end of the cycle; Chrysothemis, whilst collaborating with Klytemnestra and Agisth, longs for life after this, for marriage and children of her own, and a return to the normal world. I don’t think it’s over-psychologising to read these two women as figures of the life and death urge, particularly in a post-Wagner world; it also explains why in this version, Elektra has to die after Orest has accomplished his revenge. She has focused her life completely on this point; now it is achieved, she quite literally wears herself out in celebration. In other versions, she is married off to good old Pylades, but that’s not possible here; she does not share Chrysothemis’ desire for reincorporation. The production makes a very good job of reflecting her inability to cope with the fact that she has wanted Orest to return, but that he no longer looks like the boy she remembers and instead is a man. That bafflement is symbolic of her obsession with the way things were, and the fact that she has not prepared for the inevitable passage of time – making, incidentally, the royal palace a sort of time warp in which all the royal family are trapped, not just her.
The arrival of Orest presents him as both known and stranger, capable of understanding the suffering of the house but also capable of breaking the repetitive cycles of behaviour in which the inhabitants are caught. However, this is in and of itself a traumatic event for him, never mind the upcoming matricide. This production transfers that conflict of identity into sexual tension between Orest and Elektra, clearly unexpected and confusing but there all the same; I’m not entirely convinced, but it’s not an untenable interpretation given the way that the persona of Elektra is constructed and Orest’s past experiences.
What I think Strauss’ Elektra does best, rather than necessarily doing anything particularly interesting with the production/reception element of this myth, is give us a set of questions to take back to the original plays. The heightened emotional content and the torn and conflicted emotions of the protagonists are an encouragement to return to the psychological characterisation of the Electras we find in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and to ask how different choices and priorities change how we see her. As a counterpoint to the ancient versions, Strauss offers us another way into Greek tragedy, and helps us think more about what it is about the history of the House of Atreus that keeps drawing us back to their story.