Strauss Elektra

Richard Strauss’s Elektra is a pent-up affair strong on familial violence. The opera explores Elektra’s desire to have her mother Klytämnestra murdered, in retribution for the murder of Elektra’s father Agamemnon.

Spoiler: the person who will kill Klytämnestra and her lover accomplice is Elektra’s brother Orest.

The divine retribution element of Greek tragedy is largely absent. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl concentrate on the characters and their own bloody actions, which perhaps accounts for the outrage voiced by opera critics of the time. An obsession with violence was an uncomfortable experience in the opera house and not something Strauss was known for. Interestingly, Alban Berg would begin composing his equally disturbing opera Wozzeck just a few years later, though the work was not performed until 1925. Greek mythology aside, Strauss was anticipating a similarly dark world – one to which he would not return, though his collaboration with von Hofmannstahl would last some thirty years.

Strauss himself was uncomfortable with the subject matter, believing it too close to that of his earlier opera Salome which had recently been performed. It was von Hofmannstahl who insisted on pursuing the project after Strauss voiced second thoughts. The opera was first performed in Dresden in 1909. It is in one act lasting just under two hours.

The characters exist in their own palace hot house. A vast orchestra provides a menacing emotional surround for the singers, reaching extraordinary dramatic climaxes before reducing down to a murmur, notably when Klytämnestra makes her first appearance in scene six. If the vocal lines are notoriously angular and difficult, the musical score nonetheless blossoms frequently into something more lyrical. And its recurrent motifs give the ear something to hang onto in a score whose melodic fragments and harmony are fluctuating non-stop.

This recording shows the combination of Gergiev and the LSO at its wonderful best, with the orchestra breathing as one huge organism whilst contributing an astonishing level of detail. The excellent cast includes Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the title role, with Dame Felicity Palmer as Klytämnestra and Matthias Goerne in the part of Orest. It was made from performances given in London in 2010.

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