Opera by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
First performance: 25 January 1909, Dresden
ELEKTRA is an adaptation of the eponymous Greek tragedy by Sophocles by the Viennese writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
Elektra wants revenge on her father Agamemnon, killed by her mother Klytaemnestra and her lover Aegisth. She tries to persuade her sister Chrysothemis to help her, but she refuses to take part in the revenge. Elektra is rewarded after her brother Orest, considered dead, kills Klytaemnestra and Aegisth. This development provokes various raging feelings in Elektra, and she embarks on a whirlwind dance before being stricken with death.
Richard Strauss creates a musical style, in which he uses abrupt changes and unexpected twists, contrasting with the emotional state of the characters and emphasizing the brutal development of the plot.
For the second time in Bulgaria, opera lovers will have the opportunity to enjoy the opera “Elektra” by Richard Strauss. The idea for the realization of the production came from Plamen Kartaloff. Thus, the Sofia Opera will join the most prestigious opera houses in the world, which have in their repertoire the modernist work of Richard Strauss.
“Elektra” is yet another extremely complex creative task facing the troupe of the first opera house in Bulgaria. Following the tetralogy “The Ring of the Nibelung”, “Tristan and Isolde” and “Parsifal” by Richard Wagner, the inclusion of “Elektra” in the non-traditional repertoire programme shows the enormous artistic potential of the Sofia Opera. Only Bulgarian singers are included in the soloists’ ensemble. Richard Strauss’s vocal style is atypical and this provokes a new, different performance of the soloists and the chorus. The score is variegated with high orchestral difficulties, and the directorial idea of Plamen Kartaloff, as always, sculpts the artistic images and puts them in new dimensions of creative search.
The premiere of “Elektra” comes during a pandemic and a series of trials of the spirit. But it is also a proof of the courage of the Sofia Opera at this very moment to present to its loyal audience a captivating performance, which outlines a clear vision for the development of the theatre in the near future.
In the main roles we will see Lilia Kehayova and Diana Guglina as Elektra, Gergana Rusekova, Mariana Zvetkova and Yordanka Milkova – in the role of Klytaemnestra, Daniel Ostretsov and Emil Pavlov as Aegisth, Veselin Mihailov and Atanas Mladenov – in the part of Orest.
The conductor of the performance is maestro Evan-Alexis Christ, set designer Sven Jonke, and the director is Plamen Kartaloff.
Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal met on the eve of the 20th century at the home of the German writer Richard Dehmel in Berlin. Hofmannsthal immediately expressed a desire to work with the composer and at their next meeting in Paris offered him a libretto for a ballet. “The Triumph of Time” did not impress Strauss, and he declined the offer. At that time, he enjoyed the fame of a famous and sought-after conductor throughout Europe.
In 1903, Richard Strauss attended the premiere of the play “Elektra”, adapted by Hofmannsthal for the Max Reinhardt Theatre in Berlin. The composer immediately understood that the drama could serve as a basis for an opera libretto and contacted the writer. The two set the beginning of an extremely fruitful collaboration that would last 20 years and would create six operas.
Richard Strauss established himself as an opera composer after the astonishing success of "Salome" in 1905. It is interesting to note that his new idea had the same origins as "Salome": a play seen in Berlin, directed by Max Reinhardt and with the actress Gertrud Eysoldt in the lead role. But the similarities end there. In their joint work, Strauss and Hoffmannstal achieve a perfect balance between text and score, raising this symbiosis to an extremely high level. Hoffmannstal complied with the composer's notes and reworked parts of the libretto. All this happened through letters in the mail, as the writer lived in Vienna and Richard Strauss – in Berlin.
“Elektra” is an extremely innovative work in one act, whose plot includes murder, fraud and revenge:
Elektra is obsessed with her desire to avenge the death of her father Agamemnon. She incites her brother Orest to kill the culprits – their mother Klytaemnestra and her lover Aegisth. Finally, amazed and embarrassed by her act, Elektra dances in ecstasy, but before the end of the dance she falls dead to the ground.
After three years of work, Elektra was completed. The world premiere was on January 25, 1909 at the Royal Opera House in Dresden.
The modern musical language of “Elektra” provoked mixed reactions from the audience at the premiere. From the first chords the composer puts the listener in a state of intense anticipation. Based on ancient Greek mythology and the eponymous tragedy of Sophocles from 410 BC as a libretto, Strauss wrote the work in an extremely modernist and expressionist style. The composer creates a canvas for dramatic voices and a huge orchestra, but also a penetrating musical and psychological portrait, which impresses with its exceptional emotionality and expressiveness.
As a musical line, orchestration and aesthetics, “Elektra” contrasts sharply with Strauss's earliest operas and his later career. “Elektra” is Strauss's most modern work and the only opera in which he extends the boundaries of tonality to the impossible. After “Elektra”, he retreated to a more conservative style of composition.
The score of “Elektra” is dedicated to Natalie and Willy Levin – close friends of the composer.
Good luck to Elektra on the Sofia stage!
Five maids are trying to wash the garden of the palace in Mycenae and comment mockingly Elektra, wondering where she could be and what she could be doing. In this moment Elektra comes out of the shades with a wild expression on her face. The maids discuss how she has come to this state and make fun of her. Only one of the five shows compassion to Elektra, but at once she is led away and punished by the Overseer.
Elektra appears again for her everyday ritual in memory of her father, who after his return from Troya was killed by Klytaemnestra and Aegisth. She gets lost in bloody visions of the future revenge and the celebration after it, in which she would perform a triumphal dance. Chrysothemis comes out the palace. Unlike Elektra, she is obedient, in good relations with Klytaemnestra and Aegisth, enjoying the privilege to be a princess. Chrysothemis warns Elektra that Klytaemnestra and Aegisth make plans to imprison her in some tower. Elektra chases her away with disdain. The younger sister doesn’t want to live, staring in the dark like Elektra, and yearns for family and children.
A turmoil and terrifying sounds are coming from the palace, Elektra uses the opportunity to mock Chrysothemis that these wеrе her wedding celebrations. The truth is that Klytaemnestra has awaken from her nightmares of how she gets murdered by Orest. Chrysothemis asks Elektra to leave her alone with their mother. Followed by her retinue, Klytaemnestra wants to make the next offering to the gods to find peace. She asks them for the reason of her sufferings, and Elektra answers her calmingly that she herself was a goddess. Despite the protest of her companions, Klytaemnestra is ready to have a talk with Elektra. She admits to her daughter that she is tortured by nightmares every night and she still hasn’t found a way to propitiate the gods. She says that if this happens one day, she would be able to sleep tranquilly again. Elektra fools her mother with common talk regarding what should be the right offering and turns the conversation to the question why Orest has still not come back home. Klytaemnestra gets upset and replies that he has lost his mind and has decided to live among the wild animals. Elektra opposes herself to this theory and says that the gold, which Klytaemnestra had sent, was not with the purpose to help Orest, but for someone to kill him.
Then Elektra reveals what should be the offering – this is Klytaemnestra herself. A detailed description of how exactly this should happen follows – Klytaemnestra must be awaken at midnight, and then she has to be persecuted like a wild animal with an axe. Only when she gets tired of this and realizes that her real prison is her body – then the axe, with which was murdered Agamemnon, will fall upon her by Orest and all the nightmares will stop.
In this moment appears a part of Klytaemnestra’s retinue and they quietly tell her something. Klytaemnestra starts laughing hysterically. Elektra wonders what her mother was told. Then Chrysothemis comes and makes the situation clear: news has arrived that Orest was overridden by his own horses. Elektra doesn’t want to believe, but the only thing in which she is really interested is revenge – now she asks Chrysothemis to help her instead of their brother. All of a sudden, Elektra begins praising her sister’s beauty and tenderness and promises her that she would be her slave at her bridal ceremony, but in return she has to firstly help her to revenge. Chrysothemis refuses, and Elektra curses her.
Elektra is resolute to carry out everything on her own, but a mysterious man appears. He wants personally to deliver the news about the death of Orest. He presents himself for a friend of his and hopes Klytaemnestra to call him. Now Elektra is grieving even more, when she is convinced in his brother’s death. The stranger understands that such a pain isn’t by chance and reveals his real identity – this is Orest himself! Elektra falls into extasy, but in the same time she feels ashamed from what she has turned into.
The disguised Orest enters the palace. After a while, cries and turmoil are heard among the servants. Elektra smiles, because she knows that her mother is already dead.
Aegisth appears very excited by the fact that the herald is here and wants to meet him at once. Elektra very kindly directs him where to go. In a moment, Aegisth starts crying for help, but Elektra answers him with the words “Agamemnon hears you!”
After a while, Chrysothemis comes breathless and says that Klytaemnestra and Aegisth were murdered, and in the palace there was a fight between their supporters and Orest with his men.
Elektra falls into extasy and wants to start her dance, but in the beginning she cannot move a bit. In a moment, she begins her ecstatic dance, but when she reaches its culmination, she falls down on the ground.
Chrysothemis sets out for the palace to be with her brother. When she arrives in front of the gate and knocks on it – there is no answer.