Deaths in the Family: Strauss's 'Elektra'

WOO-1528-250-same            Ever watch the Investigation Discovery channel?  It's a cable outfit specializing in real-life murder cases, with a sub-specialty in crimes involving homicidal family members.  Those cases are detailed in shows such as Evil Kin, Blood Relatives, and the always popular Wives with Knives -- and the story of this week's opera, Richard Strauss's Elektra, could well be featured in any one of them.                

            The tale dates back to classic, Greek tragedies, by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.  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, Clytemnestra, who takes up with another man 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 Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus.

            As a whole, the family's story has often proven too much for any single opera, but a number of composers have dealt with its individual episodes. Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote a couple of operas about Iphigeneia. Darius Milhaud and Sergey Taneyev both broke the story up into length trilogies. Richard Strauss decided to forego the story's early events.  He picked things up after Agamemnon's murder, with Elektra's vow to avenge her father's death at Clytemnestra's expense.  By the time it's all over, Elektra has her revenge and is dead herself -- dying of joy, apparently, while celebrating her mother's demise.

            On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Strauss's Elektra in a production from the Vienna State Opera.  The stars are soprano Nina Stemme as Elektra; soprano Ricarda Merbeth as Chrysothemis, Elektra's slightly more stable sister; and contralto Anna Larsson as their mother, Clytemnestra.