A cartoon that appeared shortly after the 1909 premiere of the latest Richard Strauss opera, "Elektra," depicted a terribly suffering man confined to a contraption made out of a bass drum and harp. He was being assaulted by the notes of the score, delivered directly into his head through a trumpet played by Strauss himself. The caption: "The Elektric Chair."
This sort of response was not untypical. Audiences that had been shocked out of their corsets four years earlier by Strauss' "Salome" had an even tougher time with "Elektra." The story was just as lurid, but the music, if anything, was louder, coarser, more dissonant, frightening and shattering. British composer Charles Villiers Stanford spoke for many when he summed up the new opera as "pornographic rubbish."
History has dismissed that reaction as myopic rubbish. "Elektra," which finally enters the Baltimore Opera Company's repertoire this week, is a stunning combination of music and theater, a searing work of art that has never lost its freshness. To this day, it sounds "modern." And its plot, from ancient Greek sources, still strikes contemporary chords -- after all, dysfunctional families are hardly less common today than they were in Sophocles' days.
True, few families are quite as dysfunctional as the House of Agamemnon. In brief, while Agamemnon is off fighting the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra takes up with Aegisthus. The lovers murder Agamemnon when he goes home.
Electra manages to get her brother Orestes away to safety in a foreign land and becomes obsessed with avenging the murder of their father. This doesn't sit too well with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, so they send out forces to kill Orestes and force Electra to live under guard in squalor. That, in turn, doesn't sit too well with Electra and, after being led to believe that Orestes is dead, she tries in vain to get Chrysothemis to help her with the avenging.
Orestes then shows up, quite alive, and promptly dispatches his mother and her beau. Electra is so thrilled by this that she dances herself to death.
And you thought your relatives were a little strange.
Just as he instantly recognized the operatic potential in Oscar Wilde's deliciously exotic and erotic play "Salome" after seeing a German production in 1902, Strauss knew he had another winner the moment he saw a new version of Sophocles' "Electra" -- "Elektra" in German -- by Hugo von Hofmannsthal the next year.
Soon after the premiere of "Salome," Strauss contacted von Hofmannsthal about using his "Elektra," and one of opera history's most productive partnerships was born. It would come to yield such treasures as "Der Rosenkavalier," "Ariadne auf Naxos," "Die Frau ohne Schatten" and "Arabella."
Although the composer was initially concerned about following "Salome" with a piece that had several similarities -- one-act structure, an ancient setting, a messy family, a central female character who calls for murder (and does a wicked bit of boogying) -- he created two very distinct operas. Instead of the exotic musical language of "Salome," Strauss employed what music historian Michael Kennedy so vividly describes as a "whip-lashed and blood-soaked" score for "Elektra."
The orchestra would be the largest he ever called for in his operas. And these instrumental forces are used with extraordinary imagination to deliver not just the obvious blows, but to provide the eerily lyrical moments in the opera, as when Elektra is pouring on the fake charm to lure Aegisthus into the palace where Orestes is waiting with an ax.
There are also passages when the orchestra unleashes incredible radiance, nowhere more compelling than in the "Recognition Scene," when Elektra suddenly realizes that the strange man who has entered the palace courtyard is the brother she thought had died.
And, as always in Strauss, there is the waltz, sometimes discreetly in the background, ultimately rising up with astonishing power at the finale, to propel Elektra to her dizzying, mystifying demise. The way it is cut off, with a shattering outburst from the orchestra of the "Agamemnon theme" that starts the work on its course, remains one of the most stunning moments in all of opera.
A switch in time
The character of Elektra presents an awesome challenge. It requires even more stamina and lung power than the big soprano roles in Wagner operas, but also an ability to switch gears without much time for preparation, so that Elektra's more feminine side can be revealed.
Marilyn Zschau, who will alternate in the role with Pamela Kucenic in the Baltimore Opera production, knows the challenges well. "You have to learn how to pace yourself," Zschau says. "Otherwise by the end, you'll feel like your larynx is shooting through the top of your head."