A Revolution in the Opera House

Classic Arts Features   A Revolution in the Opera House
The Philadelphia Orchestraprepares for concert performancesof Richard Strauss's Elektra May 10-12.


Looking back on the impact of Elektra, composer Richard Strauss admitted that his operatic retelling of Sophocles's tragedy had "penetrated to the uttermost limits of harmony, psychological polyphony, and of the receptivity of human ears." Elektra made the first audiences of 1909 reel from the impact of a work bursting with, as Strauss biographer Tim Ashley put it, "titanic grandeur and Dionysiac violence, soaked in blood, terror, grief, and compassion."

On May 10 and 12, The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform the 110-minute Elektra in concert at Verizon Hall, with Charles Dutoit on the podium in his culminating weeks as chief conductor. Performing opera has been a Philadelphia Orchestra tradition since the days of wizardly maestro Leopold Stokowski. (In 1931 Stokowski and his Philadelphians even gave the U.S. premiere of Alban Berg's Wozzeck, another thrillingly intense modern opera.) Dutoit insists that conducting Elektra will be one of the highlights of his Philly tenure, saying that "Strauss's orchestral writing is some of opera's most powerful and demanding, and it deserves to be heard in its full glory."

Strauss was a virtuoso of orchestration, so a great ensemble like The Philadelphia Orchestra can make Elektra sound as subtly transparent as chamber music. Strauss didn't want his opera to be just loud; the climaxes must heave with voluminous, blood-red passion, but he wanted all of the score's polyphony, musical as well as psychological, to be clear. After all, this was a composer who was celebrated as a conductor of Mozart. In 1925 a knowing Strauss published his 10 "Golden Rules for a Young Conductor," and in a tone that was only half-ironic, he gave No. 3 as "Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were Mendelssohn: fairy music."

The Philadelphia Orchestra has never performed Elektra before, and to make the opera fully resound with both terror and beauty: and it can be deeply, stirringly beautiful: the group has scheduled many extra rehearsals, according to Jeremy Rothman, vice president of artistic planning. And one advantage of the concert presentation, he says, is that "the musicians will be on the platform with the singers, and this will give listeners the chance to appreciate the richness of Strauss's orchestral writing in a way that they might not in the opera house."

Elektra was the second blow in an avantgarde one-two punch that first landed in 1905 with Salome, a sex-and-violence biblical opera that created one of the biggest scandals in music history. Salome drew condemnations by heads of state from Germany to England; a riotous opening at New York's Metropolitan Opera led to its being banned there for nearly three decades. Elektra had the same body count but went further to the edge with its music: no score had been louder, more dissonant, or psychically intense. Even arch-modernist Arnold Schoenberg said: "I was never revolutionary. The only revolutionary in our time was Strauss!" Of course, we in the 21st century are used to a far louder, more dissonant, and violent world than the audiences of 1909: with many of us reveling in a good sonicpsychic thrill ride, whether in music or movies.

Elektra was the first entry in Strauss's hugely successful partnership with playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal (with the Mozartian Der Rosenkavalier, one of music's great curveballs, coming next). The librettist put a modern psychological spin on a Greek tragedy that conveys the fall of the house of Agamemnon: and the bloody revenge of his daughter Elektra and son, Orest, on their murderous, usurping mother, Klyt‹mnestra. Embodying Elektra at Verizon Hall will be Danish soprano Eva Johansson, who has become a top exponent of this role, one of the most demanding in the entire repertoire. She starred in an acclaimed Zurich production of Elektra captured on a DVD that also features soprano Melanie Diener as Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis. Diener will reprise the role in Philadelphia. Bass Ain Anger plays Orest, while mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel will portray Klyt‹mnestra. Veteran tenor Siegfried Jerusalem will sing the part of her lover, Aegisth.

It wasn't just the drama of Greek archetypes that resonated with the creators of Elektra. In his Strauss biography, Ashley describes the ties that bind the tale of Elektra with the currents of Freudian psychoanalysis that were reverberating in the minds of modern Europe: "Hofmannsthal was a native of Freud's Vienna, and while he worked on his play, a copy of the Studies on Hysteria was at his side; Freud was contemporaneously working on his major study of obsessional neurosis. Elektra, an obsessive, enacts her daily ritual howl for her father in the palace courtyard, but she is unable to carry out the slaughter that fills her fantasies. ... Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams had been published in 1900, and Klyt‹mnestra, like a psychoanalytic patient, wants her dreams analyzed. The remedy she seeks is tauntingly withheld by her daughter, who tells her that only when she dies will her nightmares cease."

To bring this psychodrama to life, Strauss made radical demands of stamina and technique on his singers. But he was also relentless in challenging the orchestra to fulfill an overwhelming role in the opera. In rehearsals for the Dresden world premiere, the composer yelled out, again only halfironically, to the musicians: "Louder! Louder! I can still hear the singers!" Already used to Strauss as a provocateur from Salome, newspapers of the day had fun with the sonic excesses of Elektra.

Lampooning the fact that the composer required the largest orchestra ever for an opera (some 112 players), one cartoon showed the audience squeezed into the pit while the orchestra filled the rest of the theater. One wag, motivated by the opera's unprecedented complexities, spread the rumor that at one performance half the orchestra played Elektra and the other half Salome, and no one was able to tell.

Such esteemed conductors as Gustav Mahler and Thomas Beecham backed Strauss to the hilt. But some critics were harsher than the cartoonists. More than one called Elektra not composition but "decomposition." This was the first Strauss opera to ever play in London, and Ernest Newman bemoaned at length the "ugliness" and "perversion" of it. Yet George Bernard Shaw: who engaged Newman in a raw back-and-forth in print for years: saw Elektra differently, writing that not even in the darkest scenes of Wagner "is there such an atmosphere of malignant and cancerous evil as we get here. And that the power with which it is done is not the power of the evil itself, but of the passion that detests and must and finally can destroy that evil, is what makes the work great, and makes us rejoice in its horror. Whoever understands this, however vaguely, will understand Strauss's music, and why on Saturday night, the crowded house burst into frenzied shoutings, not merely of applause, but of strenuous assent and affirmation, as the curtain fell."


Bradley Bambarger writes about music and the arts. He lives in New York City.

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