For all its gargantuanism, Elektra is rife with delicate orchestration touches and complex inner details: some minute, some less so. On paper and to the inner ear, it's all genius and fascinating. But having sat through numerous live performances of the opera in the US and Europe, in both opera houses and concert halls, as well as through two sets of full orchestra rehearsals, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that much of Strauss’ orchestration is lost on most ears. This is particularly true of Elektra, although a case could be made for Salome being an even greater culprit.
Examples abound. Just one:
During the second part of Klytemnestra’s confrontation scene with her daughter, on page 117 of the full score, one bar before rehearsal number 179 (Elektra: “Traumst du, Mutter?”), the first and second violins play a pp fingered tremolo in thirds against the muted trumpets, like a tiny shiver or whisper of cold air, disappearing in the next measure to an open fifth pp harmonic in the violas.To date, my ear (you won’t be the first to question its reliability) has yet to discern this diaphanous touch.
Much of this ideology stems from the increasing orchestral complexity of Strauss’s tone poems, a method he transferred verbatim into the opera house orchestra pit. But here these delicate touches are not only at an acoustic disadvantage but fall victim to the listener’s focus on the voices. Marie Wittich, the soprano tasked with creating the role of Salome in 1904, pointed out the seeming folly of this approach after the first sitzprobe: “One just doesn’t write like that, Herr Strauss; either one thing or the other.” (I’d love to have seen Annie Kroll’s expression when faced with the first Elektra sitzprobe, poor thing.)
Tellingly Strauss increasingly moved away from this sort of orchestral complexity in the ensuing operas. Even Die Frau ohne Schatten completed in 1916, with an almost comparably sized orchestra and nearly three times Elektra’s duration, displays a paring down of intense inner detail particularly in vocal passages.
With all that said, some of these passages in Elektra are marvels. Prime of these for me is the scene between Elektra and her mother’s lover, Aegisth. With the horrifying suspense of Klytamnestra’s murder followed by the knife edge hysteria of Chrysothemis and the maids just passed, and the titanic ending still to come, Strauss takes the opportunity for an airy scherzo-like atmosphere for this scene, no less sinister for it’s jovial facade. He depicts his heroine’s thirst for her hated stepfather’s imminent murder with a brilliant interweaving of motifs connected to the deed, interspersed with filigree touches of the glee she can barely suppress.
If the dramatic flow seems hiccuped here, the musical contrast more than compensates.