Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Classics: In "Elektra," a "recognition" scene in which neither party actually recognizes the other


Elektra (Deborah Polaski) and Chrysothemis (Karita Mattila)
in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Elektra at the Met, 2002
[CHRYSOTHEMIS rushes in through the courtyard gate, howling loudly like a wounded animal.]
CHYRSOTHEMIS: Orest! Orest is dead!
ELEKTRA: Be quiet!
CHYRSOTHEMIS: Orest is dead!
I came out -- they knew it there already. They were all
standing around and they all knew it already.
Only we didn't.
ELEKTRA: No one knows it.
CHYRSOTHEMIS: They all knew it!
ELEKTRA: No one can know it, for it is not true.
It is not true! It is not true! I tell you, however,
it is not true!
CHYRSOTHEMIS: The strangers stood by the wall. The strangers
who were sent here to announce it: two --
an old one and a young one. They had
already told everyone. They were all standing
in a circle around them and they all,
all knew it already.
ELEKTRA: It is not true!
CHYRSOTHEMIS: No one thinks of us. Dead! Elektra, dead!
Died in a foreign land! Dead!
Died there in a foreign land,
by his own horses killed and dragged along.
[She sinks down on the doorstep beside ELEKTRA. A YOUNG SERVING MAN hurries out of the house and stumbles over the sisters.]

Alessandra Marc (s), Chrysothemis; Deborah Polaski (s), Elektra; Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, cond. Teldec, recorded February 1995

Deborah Voigt (s), Chrysothemis; Alessandra Marc (s), Elektra; Vienna Philharmonic, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. DG, recorded September 1995

by Ken

My goodness, the things people do! To each other, I mean, though also to themselves. And no "others" are more readily in the line of fire than family.

As promised in Friday night's preview, today we're targeting the extraordinary scene in which a brother and sister are reunited, each thinking he or she was left all alone in the world to right the wrong of the murder of their father, Agamemnon, king of Myecenae, at the hands of their mother, Klytämnestra, and her lover, Aegisth (for the sake of sanity I'm going to try to stick to the German forms of the Greek names used in the libretto), following the king's return from the Trojan War.

There's so much we should be talking about here. About the creative breakthrough by which Richard Strauss, already a world-famous composer, had finally, and all at once, made his operatic breakthrough -- at age 40 -- with his previous opera, Salome. About the happy turn of fate that brought him together with the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after he had already begun shaping Hofmannsthal's adaptation of the Sophoclean version of Elektra. Very likely what Strauss wanted from him was his permission, not his collaboration, but he wound up getting both, and the start of one of the most remarkable collaborations in the annals of artistic creation. About how much the one-act Salome and Elektra have in common as well as how much they don't.

And certainly, within the drama itself, there's all sorts of stuff we should talk about. Like the specific human urgencies of each of the characters, with consideration of what first Sophocles and then Hofmannsthal and then Strauss-Hofmannsthal have chosen to include and omit with regard to the story.

But for today we'll keep it simple. The fundamental human reality is that Elektra's world has been permanently denatured by the murder of her father. In this respect she is fundamentally different from her significantly younger sister Chrysothemis, the closest thing she has at this point to another person in her life. Chrysothemis just wants to get on with a normal life. By contrast, as I like to think of it, if one were to suggest to Elektra, "Life goes on," she would be apt to reply, "Oh yeah?" or "Says who?" This is, I think, a wholly recognizable family dynamic -- capable of being explained in large part by the difference in age.

This is no ordinary family here in the House of Atreus, of course, but I think we can all readily enough appreciate familiar patterns of family dysfunction, even -- or perhaps especially? -- when they're carried to this extreme. We have two sisters who have experienced the events of their family's history, coming as they did at such different points in their lives, in very different ways. In Elektra's reality, the only hope for restoring her disordered world to any kind of order is for her brother Orest to return home from his long exile -- an exile designed to keep him safely out of the reach of his mother and her paramour -- so she can assist him in avenging their father's death.

It is, of course, that scene, the scene of Orest's return, a Recognition Scene in which, in fact, neither sibling does recognize the other, that we're looking at today. And I thought we needed to start today -- in the scene we heard up top -- with the added circumstance that makes it so much more likely that Elektra would fail to recognize her long-lost brother: She has been brought, kicking and screaming, to an understanding that he's dead.

I want to spend a little more time with this little scene before we proceed to the Recognition Scene. That will all happen in the click-through.



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