Love, Death, and Memory: “Elektra” and “Metamorphosen”


Anniversary meditations on the works of Richard Strauss.

As breaks amid preparations for my exams, I’m revisiting Strauss’s major works on the anniversaries of their premieres with more informal and personal, if not occasionally wandering, musings.

Today, two works:

Premiere of Elektra: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden; Monday, January 25, 1909.

Premiere of Metamorphosen: Kleiner Saal, Tonhalle, Zurich; Friday, January 25, 1946.


Like Salome, I always recommend Elektra as a “first opera” to newcomers. Strauss’s Tragödie has all the necessary ingredients: brevity, violence, great set pieces, women driving all the action, and, perhaps surprisingly for an operatic work, no love story. (Or at least a conventional love story…) It’s still my desert island score. (And, for what it’s worth, the source for the title of this blog.) It’s a vital presence in my research and playlists, but more often than not, Elektra is most valuable to me as a rebound opera. Adverse incidents usually send me back to its paroxysms of maenadic rage, its oases of lyricism, and its frenzied catharsis. (Along with the second act of Wagner’s Götterdämmerug, it’s stood me through more than one breakup.) Immersed in it now for over a decade, I think it’s the emotional purgation that Strauss gets best in this work, showing his dramaturgical prowess as an editor in distilling Hofmannsthal’s original stage text. The one-act is wound tighter than an industrial spring and should uncoil just as fatally. Yet the more I live with it, the more I realize just how heavy its unfurling hits. It’s relentless drive to the final, leveling C major is a snap that sometimes threatens to overwhelm everything, like the monstrous, twentyfold ocean Elektra describes burying her every step of her triumphant dance.


Part of that whelming likely comes from my unabashed preference for Sir Georg Solti’s recording of the work from 1967 on the Decca label. (It’s still my recommendation for first-time listeners as well.) Though still popular, Solti’s efforts on record (Strauss or otherwise) seem to be muscled out of fashion by efforts considered to be more lucid and restrained. Indeed, the maestro was not one for subtlety. Not unjustly did Wieland Wagner accuse him of orgasms every other bar, and the word “vulgar” is more than occasionally bandied about in discussions of Solti’s discography. Yet his recorded operas (I sadly never heard him live in the theatre) possess the vital edge and urgency one expects from the medium, something akin to the radio dramas of an earlier era—with no visual, the recording needed something extra to reach across the proscenium of the home speaker system or headphones. John Culshaw’s work as producer on Solti’s more famous releases is also no stranger to criticism, yet I’ve always reveled in the unabashed “Grand Guignol” (to use Culshaw’s own words) of Elektra, and Salome before it. There’s always a grisly relish in Birgit Nilsson’s triumphant B-flat in her opening monologue at the line “rings um dein Grab!”, Regina Resnik’s malicious cackles, Gerhard Stolze’s schrecklich Aegist. Vulgar on occasion, perhaps, but never boring. I’m also of the opinion that Elektra is not a work for understatement. If Salome is perfumed gossamer, Elektra is a bloody sack of burlap and should feel that way.


For all my love of recordings, as a student of opera staging history, I firmly believe that recorded Strauss is only half the experience. The power of the stage works depends on just that: the stage. (I use the term stage works consciously. “Opera,” though a term of convenience and habit, is ultimately an unwieldy term, especially in light of Strauss’s specific generic subtitles.) There’s no shortage of filmed Elektras, however, and the videography boasts some of the best-stocked casts of any opera of the twentieth century. Like Der Rosenkavalier, it is fascinating to see singers move from role to role in the piece. The triple crown of Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Klytemnästra provides a particularly diverse range of musical and dramatic challenges. Only the likes of Leonie Rysanek and Dame Gwyneth Jones could attempt it with impunity.


I had the good fortune to see Sir David McVicar’s production when it debuted in Chicago in 2012—a bold season opener—with Christine Goerke, Emily Magee, and Jill Grove in the principal roles. (A revival in Houston is currently underway.) Key to its success were John Macfarlane’s set and costume designs, a true exercise in scenography. Entering the auditorium, you were confronted by doom and dread emanating from the show curtain, a giant, tattered funerary shroud that replaced the famous Lyric Opera fire curtain and main drape. Elektra, like Tosca, possesses one of the strongest openings to any operatic work, a startling, pummeling statement of the masculine presence that hangs over the work, here the D minor theme representing the murdered king Agamemnon. The grey pall was impressively flown out at this moment, revealing the decrepit palace in Mycenae framed in the full proscenium. The familiar teaser was absent, and the screen for supertitles was hung, appropriately, off-center.


Eschewing sanitized visions of ancient Greece, Macfarlane painted a nightmarish landscape of the royal abode as a tremendous ruined edifice replete with oblique walls and smoldering debris, endless shadows and perplexing angles. Light, an important dramatic symbol and motif in the text, received a skillful manipulation in this world by designer Jennifer Tipton. Given the director’s comparison of Strauss and Quentin Tarantino in his program note, there was no shortage of gore in McVicar’s final scene, when a rush of blood poured down the palace stair. (It was a particularly thrilling sight from the first balcony.) Amid Elektra’s final dance, the threshold to the palace was sealed by an ominous door of solid sheet metal, an image which left me perplexed and startled with its suddenness. No stage direction for the closing of the door appears in the libretto or score, yet the chilling stage direction of “Stille” following Chrysothemis’s final “Orest!” as she beats on the door of the palace defies a concrete description of what might be going on inside the palace. The hint, provided by bassoons and Wagner tubas in the orchestra, is ominous. The unsettledness of McVicar’s image recalled something between a slaughterhouse door or the entrance to Leatherface’s lair in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like the conventions of ancient Greek theatre, it suggests that what’s going on offstage—Orest’s purgation of the palace or even his own torment by the Furies—is even more terrifying than what might be happening onstage. Sadly, Strauss and Hofmannsthal never progressed beyond an embryonic idea for a ballet based on Orest and the Furies, an effective sequel to Elektra, so the fate of all remains ambiguous, at least as far as the creators are concerned.


It’s altogether uncanny that a work with such rage and violence should share a premiere anniversary with a work of such profound melancholy. One should not read too much into the coincidence but positing Elektra and Metamorphosen in dialogue encourages reflection. Both are, in their own ways, threnodies. Elektra keens for vengeance for her father’s murder and the eventual, but always elusive, triumph of his brood. The lamentation in Metamorphosen, however, is less straightforward. The familiar image of Strauss mourning the destruction of Germany has been fruitfully problematized in the last decades of scholarship. Like the exiled Thomas Mann, Strauss returned more and more to the works of Goethe in his final years, themselves spent in refuge in Switzerland. His work on Metamorphosen took up the latter part of 1944, originating first in a setting of Goethe’s text “Niemand wird sich selber kennen” (No one can know himself) before reaching in its final form in the piece commissioned for the Collegium Musicum Zürich by Paul Sacher, Willi Schuh, and Karl Böhm.


Finished in Garmisch on April 12, 1945, the same day as the death of FDR, Metamorphosen lacks any easy or convenient exegesis. The composer left a substantial clue, however, in the title. A metamorphosis, as it would have been familiar to Strauss, would be an achievement of transfiguration through a search and acknowledgment of the divine within. Throughout Strauss’s instrumental and operatic works, the similar, but distinct, dramatic gesture of transfiguration (Verwandlung), from human to the divine (Ariadne auf Naxos, in both the 1912 and 1916 versions), the divine to the human (Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1919), or from humanity to nature (Daphne in 1938) is presented as an act with positive, but not solely redemptive (read: Wagnerian) connotations. Metamorphosen counters these examples. This “Study for Twenty-Three Strings” presents an intense probing of the self, but without the expected, redemptive ending. As Timothy Jackson’s research has suggested, the awareness of the inner beast, something morose and ultimately vile, is the piece’s parting sensation. With its final quotations “In Memoriam” from the funeral march movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Metamorphosen succeeds in emphasizing a sense of negation and abnegation, reinforced by the continual chromatic tension between C major and C minor, the latter claiming victory in the last bars of the piece. Compare this with the final bars of Elektra, where C major provides a triumphant, but also somewhat compromised, accompaniment to the image of the prone, immobile Elektra. Her long-held objectives are realized but her “self” is seemingly absented in the process, a metamorphosis to some state. In their earlier confrontation, Elektra taunts her mother with the question “What must bleed?” to her question about comforting sleep. Metamorphosen perhaps hints that any peace comes at the price of self-purgation.


(c) Ryan M. Prendergast, 25 January 2018.


Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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