Richard Strauss: Elektra

Poster for the Munich premiere of 1910

“Turn those screaming bitches down!”  was the general response my father had when subjected to endless hours of hearing Elektra come blaring out of my bedroom when I was a teenager.  Elektra is simply one of those operas which must be played loud to be enjoyed completely, to me at least. Of course, it’s not compulsory but with such thrilling music it’s hard not to.  The first time I heard it was in a radio broadcast of the Australian premiere, back in 1986 I think.  The cast was Rita Hunter, Christa Leahmann and Heather Begg in a concert performance, it got me hooked.

First performed in Dresden on January 25 in 1909, Elektra tore through the operatic world like the shattering opening chords that open the opera.  Once considered almost impossible to perform, it now has a firm hold in the repertoire worldwide, particularly in Europe.  Even in my little isolated part of the world it has been performed, it’s local premiere took place only last year.

I’ve always been completely captivated by Richard Strauss’ monumental score, it’s been a major part of the soundtrack to my life for the better part of thirty years.  The highly charged emotional state and heavily oppressive atmosphere add up to 100 minutes of exhilarating theatre.

It has everything, offstage murders, death screams, hysterical laughter, torture, a dance to the death, you name it.  All these theatrical effects aside, what is most important is the intense depth of character that both Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal give to the three main protagonists.  The interplay between Elektra and her mother and sister while waiting for the return of Elektra’s brother Orest, all for their own reasons, form the emotional central core of the opera.

The male characters are almost incidental when they appear all but briefly, aside from the touching scene at the long awaited appearance of Orest.  Agamemnon, as a character never even appears or sings, but his presence seems to evade the action in every way.

It’s fair to say that Elektra has had a far reaching influence on opera, both behind the proscenium arch and in front of it.  There are many recordings of this work that have emerged in the catalogue over the years, ever more as its popularity increases.

I would not want to be without three recordings and one DVD: the classic Solti/Nilsson recording for Decca, the vintage Bohm/Borkh recording for Deutsche Grammaphon, the Varnay/Kraus on Cappriccio and the amazing film by Gotz Friedrich with Rysanek and Varnay.  All of the current recordings have great merits of their own, but to me, the aforementioned are in my opinion absolutely indispensible.

Here is the confrontation between Elektra and her mother, Klytemnestra as seen in the Gotz Friedrich movie with Leonie Rysanek in her only assumption of the role of Elektra and Astrid Varnay in her immortal and grotesquely beautiful interpretation of her mother.  I had this on video for many years, before the days when I had multiple recordings and DVDs, eventually I wore it to the point it snapped I loved it so much.

Still do.  In fact, I might go turn those screaming bitches up!