'Elektra' Synopsis: The Story of Richard Strauss' One-Act Opera

Elektra by Richard Strauss
Katarina Dalayman as Elektra and the Royal Swedish Opera choir 2009. Wiki Commons

Composed by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), "Elektra" is a one-act opera set in ancient Greece. It premiered at the Dresden State Opera on Jan. 25, 1909.

Prologue

King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, before he sets out to Troy to wage war. His wife, Klytaemnestra, grows in hatred of him and is determined to kill him upon his return. When he comes home from war, she murders him with the help of Aegisth, her lover.

However, Klytaemnestra becomes weary for her safety, fearing that her three living children (Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Orest) will avenge their father's death.

ACT 1

As five servants clean the palace courtyard, they gossip about Elektra's state of being - since her father's death, she has become wild and unpredictable. Elektra emerges from the shadows hurling a few insults and the servants take their leave.

Alone, Elektra prays to her father, swearing vengeance. It was in the courtyard where her mother and Aegisth dragged the lifeless body of her father whom they hard murdered moments before while he took his bath. Elektra's younger sister, Chrysothemis, interrupts her prayer, begging that she give up her obsession with revenge. She wants them to lead normal, happy lives, and enjoy the benefits of being princesses. The girls are startled when they hear the sound of their approaching mother.

Chrysothemis quickly departs, but Elektra remains.

Klytaemnestra, a visible wreck, reeking of paranoia, asks Elektra for help. She wants to make another sacrifice to appease the gods, hoping they will grant her peace in return. Elektra tells her mother to sacrifice an impure woman. When Klytaemnestra asks for a name, Elektra shouts, "Klytaemnestra!" Elektra swears that she and her banished brother, Orest, will kill her and put an end to her maddening dreams - only then will she find the peace she so desperately seeks.

Klytaemnestra begins to cower in fear, that is, until her servant and confidante approach her and whisper in her ear. After they finish speaking, Klytaemnestra bursts into demented laughter. Chrysothemis returns bearing bad news. Orest has been killed. Elektra demands the Chrysothemis help her kill their mother and Aegisth, but Chrysothemis cannot commit. She runs away.

Left alone in the courtyard, Elektra starts digging frantically into the earth in search of the ax that was used to murder her father. As she digs, a cloaked man enters seeking Klytaemnestra and Aegisth. He tells Elektra that he has come to deliver news of Orest's death. Elektra tells the stranger her name, and he whispers to her that Orest is actually alive. Elektra, overcome with emotion, begins to tell the stranger where he may find her mother. He interrupts her and mocks her for not recognizing her own brother. She collapses into his arms and the two are happy to be reunited.

Their reunion is but a moment long as Klytaemnestra calls out to Orest. The servants notified her immediately upon his arrival. Elektra waits in the courtyard as Orest enters the palace. It isn't long until a scream is heard. Elektra smiles brightly, knowing that Orest has killed his mother.

Aegisth rushes into the courtyard and Elektra happily ushers him inside the palace. He, too, is quickly murdered.

Elektra can finally let go of the hatred she has held on to for so long. She thanks the gods and begins to dance for joy. At the apex of her dance, she falls to the ground and breathes out her last breath.