Compared to other symbolist masterpieces from the modernist canon, Richard Strauss and Hugo Von Hofmannstal’s Elektra seems remarkably taut. It takes about 100 mins for the entanglements caused by Agamemnon’s death, and concluded with Elektra’s ecstatic demise, glorious in the death of her vanquished foes, to finally unspool, but the emotional landscape traversed in that span contains peaks and fault lines Berg and others only rarely touch across their two-and-a-half hours plus.

Admittedly Berg, for one, was writing in a more concealed idiom of form and row compared to Strauss’ transparent motive-harmonic signatures. The latter had open to him all the naked dramatic force that comes from the play of tonal tension and resolution (not to mention a pre-war freedom of expression), but these are always turned inwards in the opera, striving at the nervous systems of its characters, searching for the truth beyond appearances. Little happens in terms of movement or event, it is rather all in the conflicts and barely suppressed hatreds shared by Elektra and Klytämnestra that this opera comes alive. The score is full of sheen and burnished chaos, whilst the dramatic conception — Sophocles’ chorus shorn, contour reduced to unbearable focus of event — is resolved to its terrible destiny.

Despite these compressions, it is still striking that if done well, it is Strauss’ Elektra, not Berg’s Lulu (another heroine sometimes deemed misogynistic), that emerges the fullest. She has come down to us as an emblem of self-hating female rage, but here, particularly through her recognition scene with Orest, she is revealed as a grief-stricken sister and daughter whose anger is more righteous than cruel. How many men have been sainted for that very thing?

Read my full review of Guy Joosten’s wonderful new production from La Monnaie in Brussels here


One Response to “Elektra-fying”

  1. Ed Says:

    Nice review – saw it at the ROH last year, thought it about as powerful as you say.

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