Greek Lunacy

Elektra! by Clive La Pensée

Many will know Elektra, the superheroine of films, comics, and computer games. Forget her! I’m thinking of the original Elektra, of Greek mythology fame. She was the daughter of Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra and thus a princess of Argos. She and her brother Orestes, plotted the murder of their mother, believing Clytemnestra murdered her husband.

Elektra has fascinated the theatre. She was used as a dramatic vehicle by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, and more recently, she became the central figure in plays by Alfieri, Voltaire, Hofmannsthal and O’Neill.

I recently saw the Hofmannsthal version staged in Berlin. Oh dear! What a disaster. Poor Elektra had a stinking cold and couldn’t be understood by the auditorium. Orestes struggled, too and couldn’t work out where to come in.

Never mind. It is a good job Hofmannsthal bothered, even though he couldn’t know that Richard Strauss would compose 130 minutes of the wildest, loudest, over-the-top music in the history of anywhen. Perhaps he should have guessed. He’d seen what Strauss had made of Salomé and it seems was keen to cooperate with Strauss over Elektra. Hofmannsthal was pleased with the result. One critic described the Strauss version as ‘Greek tragedy played out in a 19th-century lunatic asylum’. Elektra’s behaviour impressed Jung. He postulated the Electra Complex, a girl’s psychosexual competition with her mother for possession of her father, equivalent to Freud’s Oedipus Complex, a feature of both sexes, but one which is commonly associated with males.

The Strauss premiere, in Dresden in 1909, seems to have passed off quietly, which is surprising. Audiences can’t have been ready for the beating they had paid good money to receive. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, premiered ten years later in Paris, and caused a riot. Parisians went to the ballet to see some pretty dancing and got 30 minutes of gross carnality, performed to wild, hitherto unimagined rhythms. The orchestra was huge, and the noise level presumably drowned out the boos, until the end, when there was mayhem. Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal production of the Rite, redefined dance. Tapes exist. 40 years on it can still redefine your attitudes to ballet as it did mine in 1975 when I first saw a grainy video.

Why bang on about Strauss now? The New York Met are putting Elektra into cinemas worldwide on Saturday 30th April. It’s a must see event. Don’t take earplugs. Just let the anarchy wash over you. The Met are famous for getting the last drop from an artistic bloodbath. For Act II of Parsifal, they created an enormous puddle of red dyed water. As the Flower Maidens (in great trepidation for the fate of their lovers), moved around in it, the red slowly spread up their white smocks. By the end of the scene, they were variously covered in blood.

In the Met production of Bluebeard’s Castle (Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard and Nadja Michael as Judith), Michael’s performance as the tricked and abused woman, was so amazing that we wondered why the eponymous Bluebeard bothered to turn up. Bartok’s music enables artists to put the power dilemma of a relationship under the magnifying glass, in a way no other medium allows. Love or hate opera, these performances were retina ripping, and I expect to be mentally taken apart by Waltraud Meier (her Isolde shreds me) in the revived Patrice Chéreau production of Elektra.

Get to a cinema near you!

Here is the Met’s blurb.

The genius director Patrice Chéreau (From the House of the Dead) didn’t live to see his great Elektra production, previously presented in Aix and Milan, make it to the stage of the Met. But his overpowering vision lives on with soprano Nina Stemme—unmatched today in the heroic female roles of Strauss and Wagner—who portrays Elektra’s primal quest for vengeance for the murder of her father, Agamemnon. Legendary mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier is chilling as Elektra’s fearsome mother, Klytämnestra. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and bass-baritone Eric Owens are Elektra’s troubled siblings. Chéreau’s musical collaborator Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Strauss’s mighty take on Greek myth.