Elektra is a modern expressionistic opera full of angst and anger and remorse and revenge. I’m not a huge fan of expressionism (though I love Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the silent film version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the art form which distorts reality to engender emotion. But, boy, does this opera in question ever work in this opera by Richard Strauss.
But it’s hard to watch because it’s so disturbing and…well, unrelenting. It’s a modern treatment of the Sophocles tragedy by the same name. Strauss wrote the opera in 1905 when Freud’s theories were beginning to take hold. So father-daughter complexes and female hysteria run rampant throughout this opera. The music is discordant, scraping the nerve endings and laying them bare. The sets are bizarre and other-worldly, the makeup horrifying — all to bring about an overwhelming feeling of dejection and remorse.
Elektra, mourning the death of her father, Agamemnon, looks dead herself. Her skin is grey, her hair snarled, and her eyes are yellow with lack of sleep as she plots her revenge and scrabbles at her fathers grave. Her murdering mother, Klytamnestra, confronts Elektra in a key scene and confesses she, too, hasn’t been sleeping since the murder of her husband. “I have had bad nights,” she says. It makes your skin crawl — it’s that powerful.
Finally, Elektra’s brother, Orestes, shows up and kills everybody, even the servants, because he’s pretty pissed. Klytamnestra screams off stage as Orestes strikes her down, and Elektra screams back, “Stab her again!” Finally, Elektra is revenged and as blood drips from the walls of the castle she dances in the gray rain, her bare feet splashing in puddles of bloody rainwater, until she falls dead. When the screen goes black you sit there for a few moments trying to get your brain into gear and back to reality. Or what you thought was reality. You’re actually kind of relieved the opera is over because it was so goddamned oppressive…but you also realize you have just witnessed something that, in some small way, has also contributed to your growth (and destruction) as a human being.
I’m not kidding. This opera really is that powerful. It changes you, turns you inside out, and not necessarily in a good way, but in a necessary way. It’s hard to explain, but that’s expressionism for you.
I highly recommend this opera to anyone who wants to be disturbed. Give it a peek if you have the time. I think you’ll be impressed, and disturbed. 😛