Deaths in the Family: Strauss's 'Elektra'

            As the action begins, Elektra's father, Agamemnon, is already dead, and the opera opens with the powerful four-note motif to which Elektra later sings his name. Agamemnon was hacked to death with an axe, wielded by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Now, Clytemnestra is running the household.

            Elektra mourns for her father, and she has suffered abuse at the hands of both her mother and Aegisthus. Elektra lurks like a wounded animal, crouching and hiding. In the libretto, she's described as acting "like a beast in its lair." Her sister Chrysothemis wanders around like a restless prisoner, longing to be somewhere else. Their brother, Orestes, has escaped into exile.

            The action begins as five maids discuss Elektra's obvious madness, and when Elektra enters, her behavior confirms their diagnosis. In a long soliloquy, she remembers Agamemnon. She says he'll be avenged -- that she and her siblings will do the deed themselves -- and then, she'll dance with joy at her father's grave.

            According to Chrysothemis, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are afraid of Elektra, and are planning to lock her up in a tower. Chrysothemis urges Elektra to give up her obsession with vengeance, so they can all live a more peaceful life.

            When the sisters hear Clytemnestra approaching, Chrysothemis leaves Elektra to deal with her. Clytemnestra has been having dreams of Orestes, and of dying. She's terrified, and she's willing to sacrifice animals -- or even people, if necessary -- to end her nightmares. Elektra taunts her mother.  She says she knows exactly who must die to make Clytemnestra's frightening dreams disappear. Initially, she won't reveal that secret. But eventually, Elektra says that it's Clytemnestra herself who must be sacrificed -- adding that Elektra and Orestes will be happy to oblige, using the same axe that Clytemnestra used on Agamemnon.

            At first, Clytemnestra is stunned by her daughter's rage and hatred. Then, a servant whispers something in her ear. Her mood immediately changes and Clytemnestra leaves, cackling with delight. Elektra is puzzled by this, until Chrysothemis tells her why their mother is suddenly happy: News has come that Orestes is dead. Hearing this, Elektra declares that the two sisters must now kill Clytemnestra. Chrysothemis is appalled, and leaves. Elektra begins digging up a tool that she had saved for just this occasion: the axe that killed her father.

            A stranger suddenly arrives. At first, he tells Elektra that he, personally, saw Orestes die. But then he realizes that the deranged young woman he's talking to is actually his own sister -- and he reveals himself. The stranger is Orestes, returned home.

            Elektra rejoices, and promptly urges Orestes to kill Clytemnestra. It'll be easy, she says, because Aegisthus has left the house. Orestes goes inside to confront his mother, and a terrible scream is heard from Clytemnestra's room.

            Aegisthus returns, and Elektra greets him in an oddly cheerful manner. He's oblivious to what's going on, and demands more light, to enter the palace. Elektra complies, and after Aegisthus goes through the door, there's another scream. Elektra has her revenge.

            Chrysothemis runs in frantically, describing a massacre. Supporters of Orestes, overjoyed at his return, have killed those loyal to Aegisthus. Bodies are everywhere. Everyone still alive is covered with blood -- and smiling in triumph.

            Elektra begins the joyful dance she imagined as the drama began. Her dance becomes increasingly frenzied and exhausting, and before long Elektra falls dead. Chrysothemis goes to her, and calls out to Orestes as the opera ends.