Deadly Dysfunction: Strauss' 'Elektra'

From the Washington National Opera

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'ELEKTRA' VIDEO

Selections featuring Susan Bullock as Elektra, Christine Goerke as Chrysothemis, Irina Mishura as Klytaemnestra and Daniel Sumegi as Orestes.

A Horror Opera?

Placdo Domingo, General Director of the Washington National Opera, says Elektra has surprised everyone by being extremely popular with young audiences. And he thinks he knows why.

Susan Bullock as Elektra

Elektra (Susan Bullock) wields the axe that killed her father, Agamenon -- and hopes that it will also kill her mother, Klytaemnestra. Karin Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Karin Cooper

It's a story that would seem excessive for even the most lurid of "real life" dramas, or blood-soaked slasher movies. But it's always been right at home in the opera house, as we hear in Richard Strauss's intense, one-act opera, Elektra.

The tale dates back to classic, Greek tragedies, and it revolves around what may be the most dysfunctional family in all of literature. The head of this disturbing household is King Agamemnon, who gets the emotional ruckus started by sacrificing one of his daughters, Iphigeneia.

Iphigeneia's fate upsets her mother, Klytaemnestra, who takes up with another guy while Agamemnon is off at war. When the King finally returns, she gives him just enough time to climb into a hot bath — and then kills him with an axe.

That murder doesn't sit well with their other daughter, Elektra, and she vows to get even with her mother for Agamemnon's death. That task falls to her long lost brother, Orestes, who returns home to find Elektra insane, and proceeds to kill both Klytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus.

As a whole, the family's story has even proven too much for any single opera. But a number of composers have dealt with its individual episodes. Gluck wrote a couple of operas about Iphigeneia. Richard Strauss decided to pick things up after Agamemnon's murder, with Elektra's vow to avenge his death at her mother's expense.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Strauss's Elektra in a production from the Washington National Opera, presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The stars are Susan Bullock as Elektra; Christine Goerke as Chrysothemis, Elektra's slightly more stable sister; and Irina Mishura as their mother, Klytaemnestra.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'Elektra'

Susan Bullock and Irina Mishura

Elektra (Susan Bullock) tells a prostrate Klytaemnestra (Irina Mishura) that death is the only way to end her agony. Karin Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Karin Cooper
Irina Mishura as Klytaemnestra

Klytaemnestra rejoices — after hearing that her son, Orestes, is dead. Karin Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Karin Cooper

WHO'S WHO?

  • Elektra .................... Susan Bullock
  • Chrysothemis .... Christine Goerke
  • Klytaemnestra ......... Irina Mishura
  • Orestes ................... Daniel Sumegi
  • Aegisthus ............... Robert Cantrell
  • Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Heinz Fricke, conductor
Susan Bullock and Daniel Sumegi

Orestes (Daniel Sumegi) comforts his sister Elektra, just before he enters the palace to murder their mother, Klytaemnestra. Karin Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Karin Cooper

As the opera opens, Elektra's father, King Agamemnon, is already dead, and the score begins with a powerful, four note motif to which Elektra later sings his name. Agamemnon was hacked to death with an axe, wielded by his wife, Klytaemnestra. Now, Klytaemnestra is running the household. Elektra mourns for her father, and she has suffered abuse at the hands of both her mother and Klytaemnestra's lover, Aegisthus. Elektra lurks like a wounded animal, crouching and hiding. In the libretto, she's described as acting "like a beast in it's lair." Her sister Chrysothemis wanders around like a restless prisoner, longing to be somewhere else. Their brother, Orestes, has escaped into exile.

The action begins as five maids discuss Elektra's obvious madness, and when Elektra enters, her behavior confirms their diagnosis. In a long soliloquy, she remembers Agamemnon. She says he'll be avenged — that she and her siblings will do the deed themselves — and then, she'll dance with joy at her father's grave.

According to Chrysothemis, Klytaemnestra and Aegisthus are afraid of Elektra, and are planning to lock her up in a tower. Chrysothemis urges Elektra to give up her obsession with vengeance, so they can all live a more peaceful life.

When the sisters hear Klytaemnestra approaching, Chrysothemis leaves Elektra to deal with her. Klytaemnestra has been having dreams of Orestes, and of dying. She's terrified, and she's willing to sacrifice animals — or even people, if necessary — to end her nightmares. Elektra says she knows exactly who must die to make her mother's nightmares stop. Initially, she won't reveal that secret. But eventually, Elektra says that it's Klytaemnestra herself who must be sacrificed — adding that Elektra and Orestes will be happy to oblige, using the same axe that Klytaemnestra used on Agamemnon.

At first, Klytaemnestra is stunned by her daughter's rage and hatred. Then, a servant whispers something in her ear. Her mood immediately changes and Klytaemnestra leaves, cackling with delight. Elektra is puzzled by this, until Chrysothemis tells her why their mother is suddenly happy: News has come that Orestes is dead. Hearing this, Elektra declares that the two sisters must now kill Klytaemnestra. Chrysothemis is appalled, and leaves. Elektra begins digging up a tool that she had saved for just this occasion: the axe that killed her father.

A stranger suddenly arrives. At first, he tells Elektra that he, personally, saw Orestes die. But then he realizes that the deranged young woman he's talking to is actually his own sister — and he reveals himself. The stranger is Orestes, returned home.

Elektra rejoices, and promptly urges Orestes to kill Klytaemnestra. It'll be easy, she says, because Aegisthus has left the house. Orestes goes inside to confront his mother, and a terrible scream is heard from Klytaemnestra's room.

Aegisthus then returns, and Elektra greets him in an oddly cheerful manner. He's oblivious to what's going on, and demands more light, to enter the palace. Elektra complies, and after Aegisthus goes through the door, there's another scream. Elektra has her revenge.

Chrysothemis runs in frantically, describing a massacre. Supporters of Orestes, overjoyed at his return, have killed those loyal to Aegisthus. Bodies are everywhere. Everyone still alive is covered with blood — and smiling in triumph.

Elektra begins the joyful dance she imagined as the drama began. Her dance becomes increasingly frenzied and exhausting, and before long Elektra falls dead. Chrysothemis goes to her, and calls out to Orestes as the opera ends.

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