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Elektra will take the top of your head off

Opéra de Montréal attacks the dark pagan sublime of Richard Strauss

By Robert Kilborn

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
—Emily Dickinson

Alone, abandoned, dejected, and half-mad with grief, Elektra, Princess of Argos, bleeds white beneath a Throne of Blood. With monomaniacal intensity, she seeks to kill Queen Clytemnestra, her mother, who with her lover Aegithus has murdered King Agamemnon, her father, upon the latter’s return from leading the Greek armies against Troy. Orestes, her banished brother thought dead, reappears and kills his mother and Aegithus. That is the plot of Elektra.

Oh, but the post-Wagnerian too-muchness of the music, the words—lyrical, dissonant, and thrillingly over-the-top—like poisonous snakes knotting and gendering in a cistern of incestuous lust and powerlust, in a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.

History is that nightmare: the eternal round of killing and being killed. In peace, in stability, we forget our violent nature and origins. Sanity demands psychic distance from our own—living—Thrones of Blood. Momentarily protected by the filaments of civilization, by the metronomic stalemates of hegemonic powers, we forget that power is inherently evil, no matter who wields it. The recent slaughter in Paris and Mali reminds us of the barbarism that inevitably ensues when civilizations crumble and we descend into the war of all against all.

photo: Lise Lindstrom as a voluble and unhappy Elektra. YVES RENAUD

Lise Lindstrom as a voluble and unhappy Elektra. YVES RENAUD

There has been much tossing about of brains concerning the temporal significance of Elektra, which was first performed at the Dresden State Opera in 1909. For some, the Richard Strauss masterpiece heralds the Great War to come in 1914. For others, it implicitly critiques the materialism, positivism, and rationalism of bourgeois society and liberal democracy. For still others, it glorifies the fascinating, repellent extremities of emotionalism, irrationalism, subjectivism, and vitalism. And so on.

However, while modernist and expressionist in content and form, Elektra is classic in style. Classic style assumes that truths exist prior to our experience of them, and that knowledge of what is true is achieved through our experience. We do not create truth; we discover it. What was true in the court of Agamemnon in 1400 B.C. was true in Europe in 1909 and is still true today: human beings are what they are. Elektra will disappoint those who seek solace in their art. This work of art achieves something nobler: Truth.

What was true in the court of Agamemnon in 1400 B.C. was true in Europe in 1909 and is still true today: human beings are what they are.

Elektra certainly evokes visions of Freud, Jung, Kafka, Mahler, Rilke, Wittgenstein, Klimt, and the neurotic energy and corrupted flesh-paintings of Klimt’s protégé Egon Schiele: the whole scandalously fecund kaboom of culture that illuminated the stately finale of the Austro-Hungarian empire between 1880 and 1918. Cultural critics and historians speak of the post-Christian chaos, spiritual emptiness, sexual perversion, ennui, and decadent aestheticism that burned through the theatres, salons, art galleries, concert halls and coffeehouses of Vienna and Prague (and Paris and Berlin) at the fin-de-siècle. In Vienna, against a backdrop of waltzes and trembling chandeliers, clinking wine glasses and the best coffee in Europe, tongues flamed with new, dangerous, exciting, and threatening ideas in art, politics, psychology, literature, philosophy—and music.

Within this turbulent world of hyper-sophisticated art and thought, like a character in an ancient myth or fairy tale, Richard Strauss drew buckets from an endless river of gold: he partnered with one of the crucial poets and playwrights of the fin-de-siècle, Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Preternaturally erudite, a transcendental genius fully equal in artistic stature to his collaborator, Hofmannstahl gave Strauss dramatic legs and lyrical wings. (The poet once adapted Spanish baroque playwright Calderón’s Life is a Dream, whose major theme is “man’s greatest crime is to have been born.”) Over their nearly three-decade roll, Strauss and his librettist created Elektra and five other classic operas, including Salomé, Der Rosencavalier, and Ariadne auf Naxos. It was one of the greatest composer-librettist relationships of all time, an artistic association at the level of Verdi-Boito and Mozart-Da Ponte.

A one-hundred minute frisson

At last night’s performance at Place des Arts, I had to keep checking if the top of my head remained intact, while thinking of Emily Dickinson’s “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” The Opéra de Montréal Chorus, prepared by Claude Webster, joined the Orchestre Métropolitain, under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in a staging by Alain Gauthier, embellished with sets and sculpture by renowned Spanish artist Victor Ochoa. Fresh from conducting Verdi’s Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in September, and honoured as Musical America’s Artist of the Year 2015-2016 in October, Montreal’s Nézet-Séguin drove the anguished beauty of the score with Apollo on one shoulder, Dionysus on the other. The musicians responded like fierce lovers, and no one checked their cellphone.

Elektra (Lise Lindstrom), her younger sister Chrysothemis (Nicola Beller Carbone), Klytaemnestra (Agnes Zwierko), Aegisth (John MacMaster), and Orest (Alan Held) attacked the dark pagan sublime of Richard Strauss in convincing gradients of fear, anxiety, doubt, love, and hate. The complaisant, virginal Chrysothemis incarnated life in its perpetual striving for more life. Klytaemnestra embodied suffocating dread and guilty dreams. And when Elektra sang, “I am nurturing a vulture in my body,” I believed her.

Elektra continues 24, 26, and 28 November at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Montreal’s Place des Arts, www.operademontreal.com.

Top feature photo by Yves Renaud: Agnes Zwierko as Klytaemnestra and Lise Lindstrom as Elektra. 


photo: Robert Kilborn

Robert Kilborn writes for publications including the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, La Scena Musicale, Westmount Magazine, Cult Montreal, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art (New York), and Tuck Magazine (London, England).

Check out Robert Kilborn’s Westmount Magazine listing, or contact him at rkilborn@sympatico.ca



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