Opera in one act, in German, with Hungarian, English, and German subtitles
“So many grandly constructed and amazingly nuanced scenes! Full of ambivalences, the initial kinship of the three female characters and the antagonism growing out of the insolubilities of life – paradox fusing into complexity. Flung from one perspective to the next, we can only agree with Klytämnestra: Was die Wahrheit ist, das bringt kein Mensch heraus: what the truth is, no man will ever unravel,” wrote Géza Fodor of Balázs Kovalik's production.
Richard Strauss wrote an overwhelming one-act masterpiece to Hofmannsthal's libretto, an opera of feminine tragedy. It is a faithful adaptation of the Greek tragedy, pitting reconciliation, revenge and madness stoked by a troubled conscience one against the other.
A young servant
An old servant
Premiere: Nov. 24, 2007
From the parched tiles of a long-unused bath emanates the coolness of the tomb. This is where the great king Agamemnon died. Just as he was coming out of the water, his wife offered him an apple. No sooner had he bit into it than a net was cast over him and an axe used to etch a mortal wound into the greatest of all Greek rulers. Blood mixed in the water, and the bath became the scene of a sacrificial rite: with one foot in the water, and another on the ground, the king – neither hungry nor fed, unclothed, but still not naked – died. The world had become unhinged, and the weight of the unavenged murder now hangs heavy over those who are left alive.
The mariticide Klytaemnestra and her lover and accomplice, Aegisthus, have been robbed of peaceful sleep by shadows from the next world. Terrified of losing the power they gained through violence, they attempt to smother the slightest rebellion with all the tools of terror. They banished Orest, Agamemnon and Klytaimnestra's son from the palace before he became a cognizant adult, and now are using all the gold in Mycenae to ensure his destruction.
It is not only their sleep that the ghost of the dead king is robbing, though. Elektra – whose name means “shining amber” – has in her grief wed herself forever to the memory of her father, who as a wedding gift has sent her Hatred. As the prophetess of conscience, she lives an aesthetic life, denying herself everything that the wicked palace would try to use to buy her silence. Unwilling to forget, she calls out for her father day after day, her exclamations echoing from the walls. Renouncing every comfort and happiness suiting the life of a princess and instead assuming suffering and distress, she dedicates herself to vengeance alone.
Not so her younger sister, Chrysothemis, whose name means “golden rule”. Her only desire is to live the life of a woman, to be able to bear children, even if to a peasant farmer. As she waits for a husband, she dreams of the outside world: to break out, at any price, of the suffocating prison of this closed palace court! To live and give life! She blames her sister for her fate, because if their mother were not being kept in terror of Elektra's glowing hatred, they would all be able to live their lives freely.
These three women are bound by a complicated emotional relationship. The mother unites in herself the aspirations of her daughters, with their diametrically opposed characters. The woman who rebelled against her former husband is now seeking spiritual solace through every compromise. She stumbles around in a permanent trance between waking and a dream-world, recoiling from the unpleasant truths of reality just as she does from the menace of dreams. Like an invalid, she hopes for a cure from anything that provides a moment of relief, not worrying about what is true and what is not, and finding pleasure simply from having somebody whisper a few pleasant words in her ear, even if that somebody is her own daughter, who is actively opposed to her. Since the pliable Chrysothemis has no answer for her as to which demon it is troubling her placid dreams. To find out what sacrificial animal's blood must flow for her to regain her peace of mind, she needs Elektra's wisdom, even if that means speaking with her.
After so many years have passed, it is no easy thing for them to have a confidential discussion. Even though after so many years, one would think that mother and daughter would have all kinds of things to talk about. Both of them know that they only have a single common subject to discuss: Orest's return home. While Elektra, with tremendous passion and faith, attempts to evoke her vision of the return of the vengeful brother into reality, Klytaemnestra attempts to protect herself with all of the options and cynical means that come with power. While one of them struggles while clinging to phantasmagorias, the other builds a wall and takes up arms. Their waltz on the edge of a vortex of uncomfortable rationality and an even more ruthless conscience, which gnaws away at both of them, is halted by the news of Orest's death.
The mother can rejoice: her son is dead.
Chrysothemis's elder brother has died: now all doors shall remain shut forever.
Elektra digs up the axe: if no one else will, then the two of them will avenge their father's death. “I will be your sister, such as I never have been before!” she promises her younger sister, and with loving, gentle arms, she clasps the girls slender waist in order for her will to take root and infect her: they must murder! Chrysothemis ultimately rejects, three times, the promise held out to her that she will be able to cast off her bloody clothes and replace them a moment later with bridal garments. She seeks survival on the side of the strong... So Elektra must act alone?
Two strange men appear. They bring news of Orest's death, and are able to prove it as well, since they were eyewitnesses to the son of Agamemnon being trampled to death by his own horse. Thrown into confusion, Elektra attempts to stave off both the news and the approaching messenger, but the day's events have made her visibly weak, that is, the presence of the man has filled her with uncertainty. They gaze silently into each other's eyes for a long time. The woman who had long suppressed in herself the desire to rest in a man's arms one day, and the man who has returned home to accomplish his mission. They are both of Agamemnon's ignominiously spilled blood: siblings.
Has Orest truly returned home? Elektra is the only one who can verify it: the avenger has come home. She is the only one who can welcome her brother, the new king... Elektra recognises Orest.
There is no doubt about the task that awaits the brother. He must take revenge for the death of his father, for the remaining family members, for the royal throne, and perhaps most of all, for Elektra's years of suffering. For her loyal remembrance and uncompromising steadfastness have deprived her of every human feeling and every feminine joy. She has sacrificed herself, her once radiant beauty and femininity that captivated men on the grave of her father, since “the dead are envious!”
The blood-curling shrieks and death rattle of the mother shake the palace. Elektra's only regret is that it was not with the axe – that axe – that he dispatched the woman: in the great haste, she forgot to give it to her brother. But the other foe is not late in arriving either: Aegisthus appears. Elektra does not even consider him to be a man: he is simply a beast. He shared Agamemnon's throne with Klytaemnestra and replaced the man in the bed. He was the assassin who once dragged his slaughtered sacrifice by the head out of the house, across the tiles of the bath. Hearing the news of Orest's death, he incautiously enters the palace so that vengeance can be fulfilled, and blood washed with blood.
With euphoric joy, Chrysothemis brings the news: Orest has returned home and butchered his foes.
The halls are piled with dead bodies, but those followers who awaited him loyally joyfully welcome the new king. The place of the older sisters is now beside their brother. Elektra now at last can live in the palace, the anarchist becoming royalty with a clear conscience. The doors are opened, and the rightful heirs are offered a calm life.
Music plays. Music of joy. The music of the next world is only heard by those preparing to leave earthly existence. The only purpose to Elektra's life has been removed. For Chrysothemis, a new life has opened up before her. The seizure of power has taken place. The name of Orestes, the new monarch, means “mountain-climber”.