Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Electra

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Electra Summary

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Elektra, Op. 58, is a one-act modernist opera composed by Richard Strauss, and given its libretto, or text, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Though it was first performed in 1909, the opera is a musical adaptation of a dramatic text Hofmannsthal composed in 1903. The opera combines Greek characters, themes, and mythology with contemporary artistic genres of expressionism and modernism, updating the Greek tragedian Sophocles’s play, Electra. Elektra inaugurated years of further collaboration between Hofmannsthal and Strauss; the two are now considered some of the greatest operatic composers of all time.

Like Sophocles’s play, Elektra, Op. 58 is set in the Greek city of Argos, several years after the end of the Trojan War. It follows the eponymous Elektra, daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Klytaemnestra, who joins her brother, Orest, to exact vengeance on their mother and stepfather, Aegisth, for murdering the King. Unlike Sophocles’s more Stoic version of the myth, Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s version depicts the unrestrained bloodshed and suffering that happens in the wake of King Agamemnon’s murder. It also affords Elektra more of a spotlight, exposing her emotions as she encounters a series of characters: her mother, Klytaemnestra; sister, Chrysothemis; brother, Orest; and stepfather, Aegisth. To highlight its protagonist, many other details of the original myth are backgrounded.

The opera begins after Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Orest (the latter who has been banished) commit to avenge the murder of their father at the hands of their mother. Elektra remains at the palace in Mycenae to preserve Agamemnon’s memory, despite the contempt of her mother. As five servants tend to the palace courtyard, they ask where Elektra is, and she appears, looking distressed. The servants taunt her and complain that they treat her poorly. One servant refuses to taunt her, and is punished by their overseer. Elektra prays to her father, yearning for the day when his death will be avenged and the death of her mother celebrated.

Next, Chrysothemis leaves the palace; unlike Elektra, she is deferential to their mother, thus remaining on good terms. She warns Elektra that Klytaemnestra plans to imprison her in a tower, but Elektra ignores the warning. Chrysothemis explains that she accepts the poor state of affairs only because she wants to live a good life and raise children. A loud noise emanates from the palace, and Elektra teases that it is the sound of Chrysothemis’s wedding. Klytaemnestra appears to make a sacrifice to the gods. Seeing Elektra, she stops, expressing annoyance at her presence. Elektra salvages the moment by stating that her mother is a goddess. Klytaemnestra’s advisors, the Trainbearer and Confidante, urge her not to descend to speak to Elektra, but she does anyway. Klytaemnestra confesses that she has been having recurring nightmares in which Orest tries to kill her. She hopes that she might stop the nightmares by continually making sacrifices. Elektra asks why her brother is banished, and Klytaemnestra claims that he has gone insane and now talks to animals. Elektra accuses her mother of trying to have Orest killed while claiming to care for him.

Elektra tells Klytaemnestra that she is the rightful victim of her own sacrifice, since she carried out the murderous deed. She declares that Orest will kill Klytaemnestra using the same ax that Klytaemnestra used to kill Agamemnon. Only Klytaemnestra’s death will stop her own nightmares. The Confidante and Trainbearer speak in whispers to Klytaemnestra; she laughs maniacally, taunts Elektra, and leaves. Chrysothemis arrives to announce that Orest has died, having been trampled by horses. Elektra redoubles her commitment to kill her mother, to the terror of Chrysothemis, whom Elektra wishes to involve. Elektra tries to boost Chrysothemis’s resolve by complimenting her beauty and offering to be her servant during her wedding if she helps kill their mother. Chrysothemis fends her off and escapes, to Elektra’s fury.

Elektra goes to dig in the courtyard for the ax that killed Agamemnon. A strange man appears, claiming to be Orest’s friend. He claims that he has come to deliver a message from Orest to the Queen, given as he observed Orest’s death. Elektra sobs, and the man realizes that she is Elektra. Suddenly, she recognizes that he is Orest in disguise. She rejoices and then falters, understanding that she has fallen into political ruin. Orest’s Tutor appears, and urges them to hurry, for time is of the essence. The Confidante and Trainbearer appear and bring Orest into the palace. A scream comes from the palace, delighting Elektra.

Aegisth arrives at the palace to celebrate the news of Orest’s death. Elektra gleefully leads him into the palace, where he is killed. Orest’s followers massacre all who supported Aegisth and Klytaemnestra. Elektra and Chrysothemis praise Orest. Elektra joins the crowd, dancing ecstatically, and then collapses and dies. In terror, Chrysothemis runs to the palace to find Orest. She bangs on the palace doors but is unanswered. The opera’s ambiguous ending suggests that some divine intervention tied the vengeful Elektra’s fate to her mother’s.