Elektra and Medea

Two Classical Greek Women Wreak Revenge

61EPWONfwrL._SY606_By a coincidence, new videos of two operas based on Greek tragedies have appeared in the same month. Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” (1909) is on the Opus Arte label and features a 2010 performance from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden with Christian Thielemann conducting. The other, on an ArtHaus DVD, is Aribert Reimann’s “Medea” in a 2010 performance at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Michael Boder.

[In this article, the German spellings of the Greek names will be used.]

61llE+-mmgL._SL1024_Both works center on a woman driven to the utmost limits of human endurance and bent on a horrible revenge. Elektra lives only for the day when her brother Orestes will return to murder their mother Klytamnestra, who had murdered their father Agamemnon. Medea has given up all for love of Jason, who had stolen the Golden Fleece from her father. Once back in Greece, Jason decides to marry a Corinthian princess, take the children, and send Medea into exile.

Stories like this demand powerful music. After experimenting with a new orchestral sound for his “Salome” (another female you would not like to meet), Strauss went a step further with “Elektra.” But the score is entirely dramatic and seems to fit the action and emotions. A leitmotif based on the word “Agamemnon” opens the work and is heard at crucial points. The effeminacy of Aegisth is clearly underlined by the bouncy little theme that accompanies his first entrance. (His stage time is very short!)

Poster for Pasolini film version

The score for “Medea” is more like a movie soundtrack. As the program notes point out, Reimann abandons any sense of beat and lets the music flow around the action. This might be very well, but the effect is that it all sounds the same, regardless of what is happening on stage. The declamatory style of singing so beloved of recent composers (could they give us a beautiful melody if they wanted to?) will strike some as a group of actors shouting at each other at the top of their vocal range.

This works fine for Medea, who is almost always at the end of her patience—and sanity. But when every one else on stage is in the same flight path, it does become (well, let me say it) boring. Some relief comes when the young Princess sings; she does sound like a classic Grecian Sandra Dee. But it is also practically a “vocalise” in which arbitrary syllables are given multiple notes.

The set of “Elektra” consists of a huge black parallelogram with a blood red background peeking through. When the shape is rotated out of sight, the rest of the stage is all red, with a silly staircase leading nowhere. “Medea” takes place in a sort of bombed out-building site that suits the mood of the action.

Electra and Orestes in proper garb

Both productions start with the women dressed in an approximation of Greek costume. And then—as is absolutely required in opera today—the male chorus of “Elektra” show up in modern garb, with one dressed in a clownish top hat and tails. “Medea” also has the women dressed in period costume. Then enter Jason in modern fatigues. And later Orestes in a dark suit. Why? Timelessness? Saving money on effective costumes? They are all doing it? The audience didn’t seem to mind and I read that this production was the hottest ticket in town.

Finally, a very touchy subject. Elektra (Linda Watson) is done no favors by her close-ups. And for a character who eats her meals from a dish along with the dogs, she has not lost any weight (to be tactful). Klytamnestra (Jane Henschel) is simply obese; but that fits the character of a totally decadent Queen. On the other hand, Medea (Marlis Petersen) is very sexy and believable in the role.

Hugo von Hoffmannsthal

One last point. Hugo Hofmannsthal’s libretto for “Elektra” sticks pretty closely to the Sophocles play. Reimann based his libretto for “Medea” on the Euripides version with deletions and with additions taken from an earlier German treatment of the legend. Much is made of the Golden Fleece in the opera, although it is only alluded to in the play.

So there we are. Two works with so many similarities—Greek tragic sources, idiosyncratic scores, mixed costuming, surreal staging—and yet so different in effect because of casting and (in the case of the videos) camera work.