The time taken by a slow sunset. This is Hofmannsthal's stage direction for the performance of Elektra, a one-act tragedy of unimaginable darkness and violence. The same term is often applied to the dying flames of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and indeed all cosmopolitan Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. It was Elektra that, in 1906, brought together those two acclaimed heirs of the grand German tradition, both celebrated and in the prime of life, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. With its huge orchestra and musical writing that pushed vocal technique to its limits, Elektra brought Post-Wagnerianism to a blazing apotheosis. However, unlike Salome, the ashes of Elektra were to prove fertile ground and Elektra can be seen as a perfect and well-prepared introduction to Strauss's future works from Rosenkavalier to Arabella. "To clingto what is lost, eternally persisting until death - or to survive, to go on living, to adapt and sacrifice the integrity of one's soul whilst remaining oneself in the midst of change, always to remain human without debasing oneself to the level of an animal deprived of memory, that is the fundamental theme of Elektra: the voice of Elektra against that of Chrysothemis, the voice of the hero against that of the human being." (Hofmannsthal)
Opéra Bastille - First performance on 27 October 2013 - 2:30PM
|Robert Carsen||Stage director|
|Robert Carsen / Peter Van Praet||Lighting|
|Patrick Marie Aubert||Chorus master|
Anja Yung / Susanna Kreusch / Heike Wessels/ Barbara Morihien / Eva Oltivanyi
The Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus
ORIGINAL PRODUCTION BY THE TEATRO DEL MAGGIO MUSICALE FIORENTINO FOUNDATION, COPRODUCED WITH THE SPRING FESTIVAL IN TOKYO-TOKYO OPERA NOMORI.
WITH THE EXCEPTIONAL SUPPORT OF DOCTOR LÉONE NOËLLE MEYER
Richard Strauss was born in Munich in 1864 and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1949.
The son of a celebrated horn player from Munich, Richard Strauss initially established his reputation as a composer of symphony music. In 1894, he conducted Tannhäuser in Bayreuth and his first operas, Guntram and Feuersnot, were strongly influenced by the music of Wagner. His adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome in 1905 earned him a degree of notoriety that was due as much to the innovative character of the music as the scandalous nature of the subject. Elektra, in 1909, marked the debut of a long period of collaboration with the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal and displays a level of violence rarely attained in the domain of opera. With Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Strauss seemed to “settle down” returning to the Viennese tradition of the character opera. Numerous works followed, including Ariadne Auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Intermezzo (1924), Die ägyptische Helena (1928), Arabella (1933), Die Schweigsame Frau (1935), Friedenstag (1938), Daphne (1938), Die Liebe der Danae (1938-1940), and Capriccio (1942).
A few months prior to his death, he composed the Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra.
Elektra was the first fruit of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s collaboration. The composer had seen the play, based on Sophocles’ work, at the Deutsche Theater in Berlin and had immediately realised that it corresponded exactly to what he sought to express. However, fearing that it might appear too similar in nature to his previous opera, Salome, he hesitated for two years before making his decision. Hofmannsthal managed to convince him by arguing that “whilst the heavy and turbid atmosphere of Salome plays with purple and violet, Elektra is a blend of light and night, of darkness and brightness.”
Women play a predominant role in the work which is, of course, dominated by the eponymous main character who seems to possess a sole aim: to await the return of her brother Orestes to avenge the murder of her father Agamemnon by her mother Clytemnestra and the latter’s lover Aegisth. The role is a gruelling one - Electra is on stage nearly all the time – and one of the repertoire’s most intense. Although “scorched within” by both hatred and a thirst for vengeance, Electra shows herself to be capable of extraordinary tenderness when her brother returns. Clytemnestra, haunted and paralysed by her harrowing dreams, is emblematic of the growing influence of Freudian theories at that time. The third female figure, Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister, is the drama’s only truly human character. She prefers life to death and warns her sister of what awaits her. Indeed, by doing so, she reveals the opera’s deeper message: “In order to live we must forget”.
From a musical point of view, Elektra, like Salome, is composed of a single block. However, the work contains even more violence. Although based on tonal language, the score explores the limits of harmony, in particular during Clytemnestra’s dream. The most well-known passages are Electra’s first aria, the confrontations between the two sisters and between mother and daughter and, of course, the moment when Elektra recognises her brother, which prompted Romain Rolland to say: “the scene touches all that is sublime in the heart”.
The first performance
Elektra was first performed on January 15th 1909 at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden.
The work at the Paris OperaElektra was first performed at the Palais Garnier in 1932, with Germaine Lubin in the title role in a production directed by Jacques Rouché. In 1974 a new production conducted by Karl Böhm was staged in the same theatre by August Everding, with Birgit Nilsson (Electra), Christa Ludwig (Clytemnestra), Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis) and Tom Krause (Orestes). Revivals of the production for the following seasons were performed by Ursula Schröder-Feinen (Electra), Astrid Varnay (Clytemnestra) and Hans Sotin (Orestes). In 1992 the work entered the Opera Bastille’s repertoire, staged by David Poutney and conducted by Michael Schoenwandt, with Gwyneth Jones (Electra), Leonie Rysanek (Clytemnestra), Sabine Hass (Chrysothemis) and Philippe Rouillon (Orestes). In 2005, a new production staged by Matthias Hatmann was presented with Deborah Polaski, Felicity Palmer, Eva Maria Westbroek and Markus Brück, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi.