An opera in one act, sung in German
Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Adapted from his play based on the tragedy Electra by Sophocles
Mycenae, an interior courtyard of the palace.
A group of maidservants to Klytämnestra, Queen of Mycenae, gossip by the well, wondering whether Klytämnestra’s daughter Elektra will appear to grieve over her father, Agamemnon, as is her daily ritual. Elektra enters and the maidservants mock her for her unkempt appearance and venomous attitude. Left alone, Elektra recalls Agamemnon’s brutal murder at the hands of Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth, and she imagines her father returning as a shade to oversee his own violent revenge. Elektra foresees the bloody completion of her vengeance, crowned by her dancing triumphantly on Agamemnon’s grave.
Elektra’s younger sister, Chrysothemis, interrupts Elektra’s reflections to warn her that Klytämnestra and Aegisth are planning to lock her away in a tower. Chrysothemis pleads with Elektra to renounce the blood feud that prevents them from leading normal lives. Noises from the palace signal the imminent arrival of the queen, and Chrysothemis urges Elektra to avoid their mother. Instead, she awaits the confrontation with glee.
Klytämnestra arrives accompanied by her entourage and finds Elektra in a more agreeable mood than usual. The queen sends away her followers and approaches her daughter, asking her whether she knows of a remedy for bad dreams. Elektra draws her mother into describing her nightly torments, and Klytämnestra asks Elektra to identify which animal sacrifice would appease the gods and cause her dreams to end. Elektra exultingly delivers her fatal blow: it is Klytämnestra herself who needs to die. Elektra describes with morbid pleasure how the queen will be chased and killed in her ownpalace by Elektra’s brother, Orest.
Just then, Klytämnestra’s confidante runs to her mistress and whispers a message in her ear. The queen returns to the palace with savage pleasure without interacting further with Elektra. Chrysothemis enters to relay the terrible news that Orest is dead, as has just been announced by two foreign messengers. Elektra resolves to complete her revenge without the help of her brother and attempts to enlist Chrysothemis in her plan to murder Klytämnestra and Aegisth. Chrysothemis refuses and flees. Cursing her, Elektra decides to commit the murders on her own. She begins to dig wildly in the ground, looking for the axe used in Agamemnon’s murder, which she had secreted away and buried for this purpose.
Elektra becomes aware that she is being watched by one of the strangers who had come bearing the news of Orest’s death. Her obvious grieving for Orest prompts the stranger to ask her who she is. When she reveals that she is Elektra, kin to Agamemnon and Orest, the stranger reels in shock. It is only when the aged servants of the palace throw themselves at the stranger’s feet that Elektra realizes that he is in fact Orest, returned in disguise. Together, they mourn the ravages of body and mind caused by Elektra’s pursuit of revenge. Elektra and Orest are interrupted by his Tutor, who comes to summon Orest to the palace: Klytämnestra is within unprotected, and the moment of vengeance has come.
Orest enters the palace, and Elektra realizes that she has forgotten to give him the axe. From inside, Klytämnestra screams, and Elektra exults in her mother’s death. The maidservants are thrown into confusion, and when Aegisth is heard returning from the fields, they flee in fear before him. Only Elektra is left to light the way for Aegisth, and she ushers him into the palace with fawning delight. Soon Aegisth too screams for help and succumbs to the vengeance waiting for him within.
Chrysothemis enters to report on a battle within the palace between those loyal to Orest and Aegisth. Elektra exults in the final completion of her revenge and begins her triumphal dance. In an extreme state of ecstasy, she dances briefly in frenzied rapture before collapsing to the earth, dead.
The play Electra by Sophocles
The works of the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles date from the fifth century BCE and feature some of the most iconic figures of Classical tragedy, including Oedipus, Antigone, and Electra. His Electra play (ca. 410 BCE) explores the domestic fallout after the murder of the mythological King Agamemnon—one of the heroes of the Trojan War and a major character in the Iliad—by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Agamemnon’s bereaved daughter Electra and her plot for revenge appear in similar works by Sophocles’s near contemporaries Aeschylus and Euripides. In his version, Sophocles explores Electra’s character and motivation, questioning what kind of person would so relentlessly pursue the goal of her own mother’s death.
In 1903, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal adapted Sophocles’s tragedy into a stage play for the director Max Reinhardt in Berlin. Strauss attended a performance, and within two years, he and Hofmannsthal were collaborating on an opera based on the play. Hofmannsthal had made a number of changes to the ancient Greek source that re-cast the characters in the light of the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis and the writings of Sigmund Freud, and he also altered the ending. The Electra of Sophocles finishes the play in triumph, whereas Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s comes to a different, much darker end.