Elektra: A portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family
ROH programme book explores the violent and powerful emotions running through the opera.
Richard Strauss’s Elektra is a powerful and shocking portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family. The relationships it depicts are riven by intrigue, violence and psychological troubles, and result in feelings so intense that members of the same family are driven to murder one another. Exploring Sophocles’ Electra (the Greek play Hugo von Hofmannsthal adapted for the opera), Professor René Weis describes Electra’s ‘fierce devotion to her father’. He observes that she ‘never wavers from the path of revenge’ against her mother, whose murder she regards ‘as much a duty as Aeneas’ famously carrying his father on his shoulders out of the burning city of Troy’. But how is it possible that love for one parent can result in, and co-exist with, such vehement hatred for another?
In the programme, relationship counsellor Jim Friedman explores the power of emotions within families, and the correlation between love and hatred:
‘Hatred is felt most powerfully when it contaminates relationships within families… What prompts people to hate? And how does it “work” psychologically? Is Electra a vengeful daddy’s girl? Is she motivated more by love for her murdered father than by hatred for her adulterous mother? The questions, of course, are unanswerable because love and hate cannot easily be separated in her mind, nor, perhaps, in our minds either. I would argue that this uncertainty about Electra is familiar to all of us in our own interactions with others. Often we hate someone because it feels like a way of protecting those we love; the hated is seen as someone who threatens to destroy them. Also, we can both love and hate the same person: the contradictory emotions that we try to separate sometimes feel scrambled together.’
Elektra gives us an insight into the protagonist’s troubled psyche, and also portrays the torment suffered by her whole family as a result of their longstanding feud. Klytämnestra, Elektra’s mother, cannot sleep and is plagued by unnameable horrors. Strauss’s own mother Josephine suffered from debilitating anxiety that musicologist Chris Walton suggests was triggered by her husband’s violent temper:
‘The correlations in the fate of these two terrified, insomniac mothers, Josephine and Klytämnestra, whose sons were both so far from home, cannot have escaped Strauss… when Strauss was busy depicting so-called “female hysteria” on stage with Salome, Elektra and Klytämnestra, he was not just concocting characters calculated to shock the masses, put bums on seats and bucks in his bank account. He was re-creating states of mind that leading doctors had diagnosed in the person who for most of his life had been the woman closest to him: his mother.’
The composer’s musical portrayal of the anguish and unrest suffered by a feuding family in his opera is deeply connected to his own experiences. While the actions and obsessions of Elektra and the other characters are violently extreme, the complexity and power of the emotions running through their family is closer to home than we might imagine.
Full articles by René Weis, Jim Friedman and Chris Walton are in the programme book that accompanies Elektra. It is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.
The Royal Opera’s production of Elektra runs from 23 September–12 October 2013. Tickets are still available.