In order to discuss the structure of Elektra and the cuts typically applied to it, I’d like to first examine the material and aesthetics on which it was constructed.
Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Sophocles’ play maintains the basic plot flow of the original while considerably altering the structure and format. The chorus of antiquity is replaced by direct interactions between the characters or lengthy monologues for the principal characters. In addition to giving the poet broader opportunity to apply his own unique linguistic transformation to the original play's harshness, these monologues provide the title role, in particular, with opportunities to exploit that language in a panoply of thespian colors.
These lengthy monologues were surely one of elements that attracted Strauss to the play. By the time he began Elektra’s composition in 1906, Strauss had achieved a highly hyperbolic musical language, writing in extremes of range and technical virtuosity. No matter the subject, it elicited from him the need to portray it in magnified terms, which he applied to ever longer architectonic structures undertaken by increasingly expanded orchestral forces. He was after all a partisan of the late 19th century ethos - particularly in Germany - that more is more. This affected the increasing length of his orchestral works, particularly the tone poems, and their sometimes uneven pacing.
The result was an overall style of epic behemoth regardless of subject. A perfect example is the 1901 tone poem Sinfonia Domestica, in which Strauss devotes nearly an hour to an orchestral depiction of his own life with his wife and newborn son on a gargantuan scale, for a 102-piece orchestra that rivals Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in monumentality. The Ring’s original conductor, Hans Richter, is supposed to have quipped of the piece that “not all the cataclysms of the gods in Valhalla makes half as much noise as one Bavarian baby in the bath.”
So it’s not surprising that the extreme situations of this epic Greek tragedy, heightened by Hofmannsthal’s fin de siecle sensibility, would have inspired Strauss to view the adapted work as an opportunity for exploiting his architectonic and orchestrational grandiosity via the medium of his largest orchestra to date, as well as offering the opportunity to write what would clearly be an unprecedented tour-de-force role for dramatic soprano.
But as mentioned in earlier posts, Strauss's ambitions conflict with optimizing the opera’s dramaturgy. In an otherwise keenly paced, savagely tense plot, Strauss’s architectonic ambitions in the opera result in an imbalance of pacing, as well as superhuman demands on the principal singer. The sags lie in my opinion entirely in Elektra’s part: a razor-edged sense of tension and suspense, brought to lava pitch, is frequently hindered by Strauss’s extension of a passage to suit his symphonic ambitions.
In my next post I'll review the traditional cuts individually, and discuss why or not I’ve decided to retain them in my edition. In the meantime, here's another teaser video of the score: the first part of Klytamnestra's scene with Elektra.
For other teaser videos, check out my Youtube page.