Opera Profile: Strauss’ Elektra

By Logan Martell

First making its premiere on Jan. 25, 1909, “Elektra” is a one-act retelling of the Ancient Greek play written by Sophocles. It is set a few short years after the Trojan War and minimizes certain events for the sake of fixating on Elektra’s quest for revenge upon her mother Clytemnestra. In regards to theme and musicality, “Elektra” bears much resemblance to Strauss’ earlier opera “Salome,” using a vast orchestra, leitmotivs, and haunting dissonances to underscore dark acts.

Short Plot Summary

The opera begins with Elektra recently returning from a daily memorial towards her father Agamemnon, who was slain by his wife Klytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Her brother, Orestes, has been banished by their mother, while their sister, Chrysothemis, has meekly rejected to join Elektra in seeking revenge on the Queen. Chrysothemis warns Elektra that their mother will attempt to lock the latter within a tower, but Elektra is unafraid. When Klytaemnestra summons Elektra and has her interpret the nightmare she suffered, Elektra takes this chance to play upon the queen’s guilty conscience, prophesying a horrible end for Klytaemnestra. For killing Agamemnon, Klytaemnestra will be slain by her son, Orestes, with the same ax that she used to kill her husband; only then, Elektra claims, will her nightmares cease. Klytaemnestra laughs at this, puzzling Elektra. The vengeful daughter soon learns from Chrysothemis that Orestes has been trampled to death by his own horses, forcing Elektra to carry out her matricide plot by herself. When she attempts to dig up the weapon which killed her father, she encounters a man claiming to have been with Orestes at the time of his death.

Elektra grieves to hear again of her brother’s fate, causing the man to realize she is one of Orestes’ kin. When Elektra confirms this, she now sees that the man before her is none other than Orestes himself, though now disguised. After enlisting his help in her plot, Orestes enters the palace, not long after screams can be heard pouring out. Certain her mother is now dead, Elektra is taken with grim delight, and ushers Aegisthus into the palace as well. Chrysothemis, having been spared, is able to leave the palace and confirm that both of Agamemnon’s killers are dead, their supporters are being slain by those of Orestes. As Elektra dances madly over her victory, she too falls dead. When Chrysothemis tries to re-enter the palace, there is no answer to be heard as she beats the door, shouting for her brother.

Watch and Listen

Check out this version of the opera featuring Leonie Rysanek and Astrid Varnay.


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