Opera Meets Film: How Götz Friedrich Captured the Revolutionary Spirit of Strauss’ ‘Elektra’ on Film

By John Vandevert

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features a look at Götz Friedrich’s “Elektra.”

Directed by German opera director Götz Friedrich, the 1981 opera-meets-film performance of Richard Strauss’ devastatingly human opera “Elektra” (1908) is a brutal testament to the temerity of the human spirit to pull from art every fiber of relatability. Rivaling, and ultimately ascending well past the 1980 filmed opera version featuring Birgit Nilsson as Elektra with Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis, Friedrich’s version creates reality on screen. If any opera of Strauss’s oeuvre deserves cinematic reiteration, it’s “Elektra.” The film’s dark and miserable ethos, with rain and putrid odor, all painted in stark detail the volte-face artist that is Strauss.

Friedrich’s cast includes “Le miracle” Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Orestes and soprano Leonie Rysanek as Elektra. All the action takes place in an Acropolis-meets-Metropolis dystopia, with the viewer sensorially consumed by the “demonic rage” and “grateful relief” of the destitute daughter of the once great, but now dead King Agamemnon whose life was violently taken at the hands of nefarious plotters.

Underlining the turn of musical aesthetics that was befalling the musical world at the time—that being the Second (or “New”) Viennese School and their taste for the musically liberated as all but defined in Schoenberg’s serial technique—Strauss’ fourth opera represented his tactfully ferocious pushback against the critique of his meta-musical language some deemed wholly antiquarian and others artificially modern. At first a beloved paragon of musical modernism whose neo-classical/poly-everything romantic vocabulary served as a desired bridge from the 19th to 20th centuries, Strauss turned back to Viennese decadence with his next (in many ways most beloved) “Der Rosenkavalier” (1909-10).

“Elektra” was famed for its adept usage of the techniques of late romanticism, minimalism, neoclassicism, and modernism seemingly all at once in a chaotically organized bricolage a la Ariel’s grotto. But it was massively chastised as it marked the last occurrence of the daring side of Strauss, which abruptly ended with his inability to see his dedication towards the future to fruition. In one hot and tempestuous reading, an American music critic had called Strauss the “false dawn of modern music,” for this ostensible rupture in the mythical idea of musical progress as immortalized by convention.

Be that as it may, the “failed modernist God,” as Music Scholar Ståle Wikshåland poetically writes, “turned the door to atonality wide open so that it was only for the others to step over the threshold.” In a way, “Elektra” prophesied the composer’s own fate by viscerally orchestrating his own battle with himself regarding the way he wanted to grow and the hesitancy he had with the path of musical “progress” he had set upon. In this light, this film does wonders by allowing us to quite literally peer into the mind of Strauss and find out why he felt so inclined to abandon the path of innovation for what Bryan Gilliam and Bryan Randolph called a “concession to popular taste and commercialism.”

Elektra the Human

Sophocles’ ancient play tells a tale of King Agamemnon and his unvaliant death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, whose affair began while the King was away, busy conquering Troy. Amid the treachery, Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis are treated as subalterns in their own home and quickly revoke any sign of sympathy from the servants. Elektra, beset with depressive rage, refuses to leave until she gets her payback while her softer sister wishes to enjoy life while she can.

I find myself faced, after having watched the film for the second time, with a strange and all-around unsettling feeling of undesired intimacy to both the musical, visual, and “real” manifestation of Elektra and her voracious desire for recompense. This blurring of the metaphysical lines that separate fact from fiction, truth from post-truth, and even the subjective universe of Elektra from the objective world around her, is evident right from the get-go, both musically and visually.

After speaking words of pity towards Elektra, a servant-girl is promptly taken away and beaten, and we are greeted with the water-logged Elektra who utters hollowly, “Allein, ganz allein (Along, all alone).” Right from the bat, the film showcases the human side of Elektra, which, whether justified in her desire for vengeance, puts her incredible suffering above all else.

This dichotomy of the visceral penchant for retaliation (pessimism) yet intrinsic pull towards new beginnings and a desire for self-improvement (optimism) underscores the entire Gesamtkunstwerk approach that this film and music employ. Throughout the film, the balance between the forces of human nature is exploited and used to denote the inseparability between these two temperaments.

Relevant too was the death of Frederich Nietzsche in 1900, the rising popularity of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theory (1896-), the split of philosophy into the analysts (empiricism) and reflectionists (introspection), and the focus on the logic and rational discourse that swept the arts and sciences in the early 20th century, although in Russia, Symbolism had just been born.

Why is this relevant you might ask? Because Elektra, in my reading of course, despite the easy notion of her as imprisoned by the instinctual desire for blood, is never actually acting from instinct, and in her own way, pushes back against Freud’s reification of the mental scape into the “id, ego, and superego.” She is undeterred, keenly alert, and more importantly conscious in her desires to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, with the music having clear tonal roots which operate within, albeit at the gaseous fringes, of the major-minor system. Margery Enix’s 1979 analysis of the score and unequivocal statement, “Does Elektra really step ‘beyond the bounds of tonality’? Does it stand on the ‘edge of atonality?’ The answer to both questions is no,” paints a very different picture than many today would state. But this film affirms Enix’s statement almost by design, using the tradition and the modern as constructs to paint a human story.

The Faces, the Drama!

Perhaps superficial, but there is something about being able to see explicitly the faces of the singers-qua-characters instead of merely aurally tracking with squinted eyes where the sound is coming from and pairing a blurred face to a certain timbre.

However, when dealing with the horrific beauty of Strauss’s second and last modernist spectacle, ambiguous personage is undesirable, since the histrionics and intense dramaturgical episodes only succeed in inducing a sense of unnerving dread and unshakable mania when the audience can map the insanity to a face. But it’s more than that because after mapping the insanity to a face, it then forces us to see ourselves, in every quiver of the lip, sudden jerk of the head, jolt, and wilt of the exhausted bodily frame. We are reminded that the vindictive ardor of Elektra, simple hope of Chrysothemis, grotesque fearfulness of Clytemnestra, and naïve hubris of Aegisthus, along with the entire rest of the fallible cast, are just shades of ourselves which we keep hidden under the layers of delusion.

Several moments stand out. The interactions between Elektra, her mother, and Aegisthus are by far my favorite, as the visceral panic Clytemnestra feels (hidden behind a thick coating of egotism), the ignorance of her husband, and the seething indignation Elektra has for them practically gushes out in tactful expressions, made even more powerful by the many faces that decorate the background.

Just as in the score, where perceptive chromaticism, extended harmonies, hazy major/minor boundaries, and fabricated chordal arrangements (most notably the “Elektra chord,” a stacked E# major and C# major) echo the duality of the human penchant for love and violence, so too are Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Elektra’s interactions never ambiguous. Particularly damning is the scene of the murder of Aegisthus, where Elektra is seen smirking with sickly sweet musicality supporting her deceivingly calm melodic temperament. But it is the moment before Aegisthus steps into the palace to be eventually murdered by Orestes that haunts me. There is a close-up of her eyes as she breathlessly waits for the strike, and in the shadows of the Hellenic ruins, you watch as the victim turns victimizer. Accompanied only by an extremely high violin tremolo, I found myself holding my breath until the moment when…strike.

(The time mark is 1:43:28)

Further, the moment when Elektra meets her brother Orestes and finds out that he’s still alive after having sent him away to protect him, gives me shivers to review it even now. You can see Elektra’s sullen and jaundiced face give way to a shimmering countenance of genuine hope and maternal (some argue incestuous) affection, “a vision in a dream … fairer than any dream,” accompanied by at first crashing horns, brass and neurotic strings which give way to orchestral lyricism standing in high contrast to the general musical ethos of the opera. This seminal moment, known as the Recognition scene, which in many modern retellings casts Oreste as way too emotional and Elektra as not enough, is by far one of the opera’s most beautiful moments. The “extended” classical framework Strauss uses with the music to juxtapose Elektra’s first interaction with Orestes (unknown), using incredibly unstable harmonic progressions with chromaticism hanging in the air, and second interaction (known), where sublime harmonic clarity springs forth and melody is again restored, can be seen in the film’s manipulation of lighting, movement, and scene-by-scene rhythmics.


So what’s left to be said about this monstrous opera, whose legacy is mired in aggressive assaults on Strauss’s tenacity to follow through with the modernist project he gave birth to? As Enix had pointed out, the notion that this opera is something of a modernist touchstone is not entirely accurate, nor is it wise to say that it is musically “conservative” as Enix finds it seemingly right to do. Instead, an appeal to the nature of Strauss and his environment may yield a better notion of what he was potentially trying to achieve.

Marking the end of his career’s second phase, the first phase being incredibly infused with Brahmsian and Schummanesque classical shrewdness, with all the trappings of the former’s taste for “romantic individualism” as Britannica succinctly remarks, and the latter’s command of introspective lyricism which reflected mental states almost to a fault, Strauss’ career gained a varnish of mystique until his death. After having been introduced to composer Alexander Ritter, he turned towards Wagner’s declamatory style until aesthetically backpedaling, before all together embracing Mozartian classicism in the last period of his life. These turbulent changes of aesthetic dedication, some, including Glenn Gould, would argue are one seamless evolution with several changes of direction, and both the opera and the film exemplified this. By pulling the human element out of the score by hiding the musicians and causing the music to embody diegetic sound rather than orchestrated music, a strange but wonderful effect is caused. Yes, you can tell the singers are lip-syncing for sure, and yes, at times the absence of the orchestra could sensationalize the art of opera. Hopefully, more of these types of immersive films will be released soon, as it gives us, the audience, a glimpse into the womb of humanity from a different vantage point, releasing the music from its cage back into the world in which it originated.

I must give the last word to Arnold Schoenberg who, in 1923, had uttered this rather unprecedented quotation, “I was never revolutionary. The only revolutionary in our time was Strauss!” In that regard then, viva Strauss!


Opera Meets Film