Last night’s performance of Elektra by the augmented Boston Symphony, with a large cast of excellent singers, was truly amazing, stunning, thrilling, and I will have a lot to tell. But first:
It is only fair that from the start I confess my ambivalence about Richard Strauss’s music. About the level of inspiration, the impeccable craftsmanship, the brilliant technique, there’s no question at all; whatever I might say objectively about it, his music is for me entirely a matter of taste. I respect most of Strauss’s work; I admire much of it; I love some of it without reservation. I regard some works, such as Till Eulenspiegel and the Metamorphosen, as among the best that a century of our art has to offer, and it shouldn’t matter to anyone that others, such as Ein Heldenleben, Don Quixote, Zarathustra, the Domestica and Alpine symphonies and nearly all of the operas after Rosenkavalier, leave me cold, irrespective of their mastery. And I am really only beginning to appreciate Rosenkavalier, slowly and painfully. That said, I love many things in Salome and Elektra even though I have to brave their excessive longueurs, their musical violence, and their simultaneous incongruities of industrial-strength sentimental styles that verge on vulgarity. And it is hard to separate these two remarkably original works from a century of subsequent operatic evolution, especially through the glass darkly of Wozzeck and Lulu, which both Salome and Elektra influenced. Elektra got a performance in New York in French (!) in 1910, but not until 1931 did America hear it in German, and I am unaware that any such reaction occurred then that had caused Salome to be banned as obscene after its first American production in 1907.
Salome is partly about necrophilia and vampirism, not to mention filial disobedience, but Elektra, like Sophocles’s play, is about Electra’s maddened desire to avenge the axe murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra, and Clytemnestra’s paramour Aegisthus. Because of this mania, Hofmannsthal and Strauss keep the title character on stage during almost the entire duration of the opera. Electra wants her sister Chrysothemis to participate in a dual execution of Clytemnesta and Aegisthus; when Chrysothemis refuses, Electra curses her and enlists her banished brother, Orestes, to consummate the deed, which he does, but without the axe.
Elektra was, in 1909, Strauss’s bravest advance toward the abyss of atonality, into which he peered for a while before retreating into safety. (That same year, to name just a couple of contemporaneities, Sergei Rachmaninoff, a 19th-century Romantic descendant of Chopin, wrote his Third Piano Concerto, while Arnold Schoenberg, a year younger than Rachmaninoff and ten years younger than Strauss, in his Five Pieces for orchestra, op. 16, looked into the atonal abyss and jumped in joyfully with both feet.) For Elektra, Strauss determined that the radical Angst that pervades the entire Hofmannsthal play demanded a chromatic harmony that he could control with an elaborately contrapuntal texture. Some of this appears in characteristic leitmotives, such as the D-flat-7th over E in the bass, which appears as early as the third page of the full score. (Most of the important leitmotives of the opera are stated within the first five minutes.) The chromatic harmony is always very clear and never gratuitous, no matter how complex. But the diatonic harmony, much of it associated with Chrysothemis’s appearances on stage, always makes an uncomfortable psychological contrast, especially because so much of it is cast in waltz rhythms that look forward to Rosenkavalier, and we absolutely don’t want to feel that the Trojan War and its aftermath took place in Vienna. But Strauss obviously knew this and built on it.
The orchestra of Elektra is memorably huge. If Strauss’s specifications are followed strictly, the complement is about 110 players; various reference sources, by adding doubling strings, increase this number to 120, which is still less than the 140 or so usually demanded by Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. Strauss is supposed to have said to at least one orchestra: “Please play very very softly, because it’s all composed so loud.” (Other wags have Strauss saying, “Louder! I can still hear the singers!”) When one studies the score in performance, one is moved to wonder how much of the amplified orchestra is really necessary—one hardly ever hears the heckelphone or the basset horns, for instance, and the bass trumpet and contrabass trombone could easily be substituted by others. But the sound of the Wagner tubas is wonderful, especially in the Orestes motive (“Hier muß ich warten.”) Only in a few places is the full orchestra deployed at full volume for any length of time—when Clytemnestra enters with her sacrificial animals, when the news of Orestes’s rumored death arrives, in Electra’s culminating dance (an adumbration of Stravinsky’s “Sacrificial Dance” four years later), and a few other instances. Otherwise the loudest passages are mostly accentual, as in the opening measures with the “Agamemnon” motive (which also end the opera two hours later). I go far out on a limb for saying this, but I believe that in Elektra, more than in either Salome or Rosenkavalier, the overall orchestral texture is well-proportioned despite the excess of instruments; the elaborate counterpoint of the inner parts is mobilized in support of the harmony, in which there is a lot of parallel writing (compare Debussy, who probably would have hated it) and chromatic creeping that obviously interested Strauss for its sheer sound. The texture is often complex, but the leitmotives and the harmony are always explicit—and the singers doubtless were grateful for this.
So what do my serious reservations about Salome and Elektra ultimately boil down to? Above all, it is Strauss’s chopped-up method of operatic composition, which is slavishly tied to the leitmotive principle in ways that essentially impede natural musical development. Every moment hangs on the text, and upon the back-and-forth dialogue, and one gets the impression that any dramatic structure in the music itself is mostly unplanned; it is as though Strauss were composing at top speed from one day to the next without knowing where he was or where he had been, driven only by the progress from moment to moment of the libretto, with his handy little Leitmotivtabelle at his side. Instance in point: when Electra, alone on stage in Scene II, is addressing her dead father Agamemnon, at “…the hour, where they struck you down—your wife, and that one who slept with her in your royal bed…” (No. 39). The chromatic chordal accompaniment in divided strings would in itself be a good psychological support for this creepy reflection, but Strauss, with perfect incongruity, chooses this delicate moment to add the bouncy leitmotive of Aegisthus—in a solo tuba.
Elektra was Strauss’s first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal; five more were to follow, and Rosenkavalier, coming in 1911 right after Elektra, is considered one of the most successful and beloved operas of all time. But a subsequent century of mankind’s troubled existence on earth makes me realize why Elektra is dramatically unsatisfactory. Hofmannsthal’s Electra is too furious, too much a creature of insanity, to legitimately demand that someone else be the instrument of her vengeance. In our own time, she would have to wield the axe with her own hands; no lesser personal action would suffice.
But what makes all the dramatic crudities in Elektra of merely passing irritation are those many extended moments of amazing technical brilliance and spectacular sound that are well worth waiting for: the dread approach of Clytemnestra and the tortured narrative of her dreams; the volcanic eruption of orchestral tutti just before the news of Orestes’ presumed death (No. 1a); Electra’s curse of her sister Chrysothemis (No. 109a) and the digging music that follows immediately; and the vengeance scene, where Electra paces around “like a caged animal,” waiting for Clytemnestra’s death shriek.
In preparation for writing this report I took the trouble to listen to three different recordings of Elektra for comparison, plus one of Salome for background. (I didn’t hear the BSO’s concert performance of a year ago of Salome that Andris Nelsons directed.) But Elektra live in Symphony Hall is like a totally different world, a well-nigh overwhelming experience of sound. The performance included several cuts that were sanctioned by Strauss, doubtless to help Electra and Chrysothemis, who have two of the most difficult vocal roles any operatic singers have been called upon to fill. The performance was semi-staged, the characters moving on and off stage as the scenes demand, and providing as much gesture and action as the small space allowed – but this was entirely adequate dramatically. (For the final scene there was a chorus up in the second-balcony aisles.) Christine Goerke, as Electra, never faltered for even an instant in what is universally recognized as one of the most demanding soprano roles ever composed; she radiated power throughout, communicating an uncanny intensity in every phrase and every gesture. Gun-Brit Barkmin, singing the hardly less ferocious role of Chrysothemis, was every bit as convincing, and the richness of her voice resounded even in the last notes of the opera (“Orest! Orest!”). Jane Henschel, as the aged and fevered Clytemnestra, recounted her nightmares and premonitions in a voice that was totally penetrating and shuddering. All three of these fine singers are already known to BSO audiences. The tenor Gerhard Siegel, another BSO veteran, did wonderfully in the lesser role of Aegisthus, who is like Baron Ochs or Beckmesser writ small. The part of the young Orestes was sung by the British baritone James Rutherford, here in his BSO debut; his sound was clear but somewhat lacking in intensity for the role, which includes a good deal of rich basso, more, perhaps, than Strauss had originally planned. Ten other singers represented the retinue of the house of Agamemnon, and all of them were as excellent as they were effective.
All of this huge performance was led by Andris Nelsons, who mobilized and organized it with an excellent precision which kept everything under complete control. I never had even an instant of difficulty following his beat, which even in the largest gestures was crystal-clear, as is certainly necessary considering the size of the orchestra. The tempi and meters are constantly changing, like the moods of the drama, and these changes demand the utmost of the conductor’s concentration. Nelsons’s task was heroic and he met it completely. Congratulations to him, and to all of those whom he brought together so successfully. It will take me a while longer to appreciate Rosenkavalier, but last night’s performance convinced me even more that Elektra is a great work.