Rethinking Antiquity, Viennese Elektra

November 14, 2015

By Fotios Kaliampakos

In the 19th century the worship of the Greek antiquity reached great dimensions. One would suffice to look at the neoclassical buildings of the greatest cities of Europe and North America or at the educational systems of several countries of that era. In particular, in the German speaking world, in Germany and Austria, it was somehow self-explanatory that the educated middle class had been taught in school, in fact with increased demands ancient history and ancient Greek, which were in fact necessary for someone to continue on to university. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had to translate during his exams certain verses from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in order to pass Medical School of the University of Vienna.

Antiquity in the eyes of the educated European of that era represented the ideal of harmony and beauty in the fine arts, the birth and the highest moments of theater and philosophy, democracy and freedom, the liberating power of the Logos (Ratio) and of the sciences. Towards the end of the 19th century certain great thinkers with Nietzsche and Freud among them, considered that it was rather one-sided to see in  ancient Greek civilization only the “blue of the sea”, and they mainly highlighted other aspects of the ancient writings, those that shed light on the human instincts, the realm of dreams within the darkest depths of the human soul. Freud used the ancient legends for his own theories as well for the “Oedipus Complex”, while in order to express the radical form that the bond between father and daughter may take he used the term “Elektra’s Syndrome”.

Nietzsche on the other hand, highlighted from the ancient tradition not the Ratio proper speech and science, aspects which he considered more or less as authoritarian mechanisms, but the balance that the ancient Greeks had found, in his view, between these elements and the more instinctive ones, uncontrollable aspects of the human soul, for which he invented the term “Dionysian.”

Elektra is (just like Antigone) an archetypal figure of the ancient tragedy, which in fact is delivered in three different versions, in the same named tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides and in the second tragedy “Choephoroi (Libation Bearers)” from Aeschylus’s trilogy “Oresteia”, and it has been the subject of study by a line of major intellectuals.


Raised in the middle of these developments, Hugo von Hofmannsthal was familiar to both approaches, once he had received a robust classical education in high school, before he came in contact with the world of Nietzsche and psychoanalysis. The Austrian writer transferred to the theater stage all of those intellectual pursuits creating an Elektra. Although based on Sophocles, it was completely modernistic (1903). We know that Freud’s “Studies on Hysteria” (Studien uber Hysterie, 1895, together with Joseph Breuer) have been on Hofmannsthal’s desk whereas a few years after the “Die Traumdeutung” (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900) had shaken the intellectual world of Vienna. His version borrows elements from Freud, since Elektra’s and Clytemnestra’s dreams and characters take such a nuance. Hofmannsthal was enchanted, besides, from  Nietzsche’s “Dionysian element” and so he allows this as well as other Nietzschean elements to infiltrate the text. A characteristic one in the play is the cry of Elektra to her sister: “I am not an animal. I cannot forget.” This is a direct allusion to Nietzsche’s influential text: “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life” (1874) Nietzsche creates in a quite impressive passage the vision of an animal’s herd in order to show that they don’t have memory, they don’t know what is past, what is present what is future; therefore he praises them because they are not living in or with history they don’t suffer from the past.

Quite the opposite is the case in Hofmannsthal’s version of Elektra. The past is omnipresent in her life and dreams. She is actually living her passion in her own body, suffers from the face of her father who appears in her dreams and from the actual presence of her mother. She is not a tragic heroin in the classical sense. Her instinct for revenge exceeds the desire to restore moral order; it is a dire need of her psyche, bordering on hysteria, mental illness. At the end of the single-act play, and here is the only essential change that Hofmannsthal brings about in the narrative of the legend, Elektra collapses. So the revenge that comes about ultimately with the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus leads to no sort of “catharsis” in the meaning of the term according to Aristotle. Instead it is a fall, a Gotterdammerung, (Downfall) similar to the one happening in Wagner’s operas. The fragmentation or in Hofmannsthal’s own words the dissolution of Elektra’s personality is not only connected to Nietzsche’s similar diagnosis about the modern civilization but also with the view of the Austrian philosopher Ernst Mach, that given the current psychological knowledge the Ego cannot be saved any more (“Das Ich ist unrettenbar”).

The conception of the female characters of the play had also something to do with Ibsen’s female characters on which Hofmannsthal has published several essays. Characteristic for Hofmannsthal’s drive for innovation (which eventually would change later) is that he found Ibsen himself not as radical as he would like when he briefly met the then already old master in Vienna in 1891.

The vehicle that Hofmannsthal utilizes to make the test cross over to new and partially extreme ideas of his time is the language, which reaches its limits, it becomes a cry. Hofmannsthal in Elektra brilliantly expresses and brings on stage the philosophical and artistic discussions of his time about the limits of language, the limits of language to depict and express reality and the limits of artistic language to be innovative. In a search for other meta-lingual means of expression at the end of the play Elektra calls her brother and her sister for a kind of a ritual dance instead of speaking (“Schweigen und tanzen” – Silence and dance)

The award winning 2012 production of the play created by the German director Michael Thalheimer for the Austrian National Theatre fleshes out, as it can be seen in the pictures, the deeply psychoanalytical character of the piece. The actresses Adina Vetter as Chrysothemis, Catrin Stiebeck as Clytemnestra and Christiane von Poelnitz in the title role were brilliant in expressing these features of the radical modernistic text.

Actress Gertrud Eysoldt (1870-1955), who first performed the piece in 1903 in Berlin’s “Kleines Theater” (Small Theatre), had remained sleepless herself on the night she read it for the first time, as she wrote to Hofmannsthal, from the shock the violent text of the modernistic masterpiece caused to her. In a letter to the author: “Why did do that to me? I suffer, I suffer.”

Eysoldt performed the piece again in 1905 this time in Vienna. The reactions of the public were divided. Some felt the power of the new Elektra, some reacted to the assault of Hofmannsthal on their harmonious idea of Greek Antiquity. This was partially intended since Hofmannsthal’s play was also a reaction to a conservative performance of Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” in Vienna in 1900 using a traditional translation created by a giant of classical scholarship, the distinguished German philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.

Richard Strauss, the rising composer of the time, recognized its explosive power when he first saw the play. He called Hofmannsthal to collaborate on the transfer of the text onto the opera stage. The use of ancient topoi in opera is interweaved with its history from the beginning, since those who inspired it believed that they were reviving the ancient tragedy, in which beyond the choral parts the articulation was also in verse.


When Strauss took on the task of composing the score for Hofmannsthal’s Elektra, which resets radically the meaning of ancient tragedy, he already had a similar experience involving the biblical tradition. He had composed the music of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” with similar modernistic features. Salome lusts intensely for John the Baptist. This obsession dominates her existence, it becomes a psychological illness as well. The piece, both in its theatrical (played actually also before Elektra by Eysoldt) as well as in the operatic version has a similar ending since Herod orders her death. The operatic Salome, first premiered in Dresden in 1905 was a great success and established Strauss in the operatic world.

In the case of Elektra, Strauss created with the cooperation of Hofmannsthal created an unsurpassed, but very demanding masterpiece for the performers and the spectators. This is not appropriate for the art of opera, but rather involves those already familiar with German opera. The opera premiered in Dresden in 1909. In fact it is characteristic about the power of these texts that the two operas from a musical point of view are the most extreme and pioneering works of the composer. They are written in the first decade of the twentieth century, that is in the middle of his career, while he had a spectacular course composing for 40 more years until his death life in 1949.

As it was at the time of creation of these plays, the same is also now in their presentation in New York: Elektra followed Salome. In February, 2014, in the context of a dedication for “Vienna 1900 – City of Dreams” Salome was chosen as the characteristic one, and for this reason suitable to represent the intellectual and musical trends of the times. A galaxy of stars of the German speaking repertoire undertook the task of presenting it. The singers were then accompanied by the unsurpassed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of an exceptionally talented and rapidly rising conductor, the Latvian Andris Nelsons. The performance was a unique musical experience to those who had the opportunity to attend, a triumph which established Nelson’s name as one of the top interpreters of Strauss’s music. In the meantime he has taken over the musical direction of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The same as last year Nelsons, in the regular annual appearance of the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall he included certain works of Strauss in the program. This year he chose to present Elektra in the form of a concert. Most singers participated in both performances. The German soprano Ben-Brit Barkmin this year took over Chrysothemi. She was Salome of the 2014’s performance. Herod then, the tenor Gerhard Siegel was Aegisthus this year and Herodiad, mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel, Clytemnestra. The leading lady Christine Goerke has already played several times Elektra on major stages in Europe.


The opera was presented in a concert format, yet part of the stage action unfolded among the strings in the orchestra (semi-concertante). As it was expected from the quality of the performers the performance was another unique musical experience for those in attendance.

This opera is a mainly a women’s affair and it is there that we should look for the ones who distinguished themselves, without this meaning however that Gerhard Siegel as Aegisthus and James Rutherford as Orestes were lacking in anything. The veteran mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel as Clytemnestra sang with great maturity and expressivity. Ben-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis enchanted all with her stage presence just like two years ago in the then leading role of Salome. She has a special stage presence where her entire body participates harmoniously in the interpretation of the role. Christine Goerke as Elektra responded perfectly to the very demanding role in an intense performance, she was apotheosized by the audience.

At any rate, what stole the spotlight was the performance by the orchestra which although it took a few minutes for it to “warm up”, not only did they respond to the tremendous technical demands but it did so with the expressiveness of the sound, the delivery of the grotesque elements as well as the wonderful passages of the strings, demonstrating that he had internalized completely the spirit of the play. Although contradictory by nature with the grotesque, beauty and tenderness coexist in this complex masterpiece. This kind of internal contradiction between violent moments that sound incredibly elegant and beautiful is expressing a central moment of the nature of these works as well as of Vienna’s “Zeitgeist” of the time which is expressed in the German term “Leidenslust,” i.e., lust for suffering.

At this point now one should exalt Nelson’s performance. Because in the case of Salome, Strauss’s music is something like a second nature for the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, who have played this piece numerous times in their function as the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, although it is certainly indisputably one of the best orchestras on the continent of America, it is not that familiar with the spirit of central European modernism. Thus, for this orchestra to take her performance, in the specific play, at this level, mainly concerning the expression (there is no issue regarding the technical aspect) is an exceptional achievement, which must be rightfully credited to the conductor. It is no coincidence that the orchestra has already extended Nelsons’ contract until 2022.

In the meantime the Latvian conductor who finally did not finish first in the race for the Berlin Philharmonic, for which his name had also been heard, took over from the year 2017 and thereafter the historical orchestra Gewandhaus of Leipzig. With Andris Nelsons, his mentor, the distinguished conductor Maris Jansons and the operatic mezzo-soprano Eliza Garanca among others, Latvia a small country has in the music world the status of a superpower!

It is worth noting that in the first performance of Elektra at the Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, it was Dimitris Mitropoulos who conducted on 22 December 1949. The Greek participation was not limited to him, since the role of Clytemnestra was cast to the Greek mezzo-soprano Elena Nikolaides (1909-2002), who also had a major career in the United States.


Christine Goerke as Elektra,


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