The Ring cycle, like most of Wagner’s work, signaled a change in form and content of music drama and created something modern. At the end, when the immortals lose their power and die away, the dawn of the age of humans is something to celebrate. However, as opera entered the 20th century, new philosophies on social behavior such as Freud’s psychological tenets began to explore the dark side of humanity. This was true in opera as well.
Richard Strauss’ Elektra of 1908 can be seen as the 20th century answer to The Ring cycle. This tale of a clash of generations and ideas in ancient Greece recently got a modern makeover at the Metropolitan Opera when its new staging created by the late Patrice Chéreau arrived this spring. Chéreau is known for modern takes on the classics. It is no coincidence that he directed a production of The Ring in 1976 that updated the story to the Industrial Revolution. His take on Elektra is just as thought-provoking setting the story amongst a contemporary dysfunctional family. He probes the psychological implications that Strauss wanted to explore concerning the new role of the individual that Wagner praises at the end of The Ring. Elektra is about a clash of cultures as well. She kills her mother for murdering her father, whereas her mother looks to the Gods for forgiveness of her crimes. It is all very good to take control of your life through action but Strauss and Chéreau explore the consequences of that action. According to the libretto, Elektra’s dance of triumph at the end is interrupted when she faints due to exhaustion. In Chéreau’s staging, there is no dance. The triumph of the music is offset by Elektra simply sitting quietly, is she imagining herself dancing or has the gravity of what just occurred consumed her? Either way, by the end of Elektra, rule by mortal is something to be seriously considered in all of its implications, not necessarily something to be celebrated. It’s a very modern predicament.