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The Bloodiest Opera Ever? Maybe Strauss' 'Elektra'

It's a story that would seem excessive for even the most lurid of "real life" dramas, or blood-soaked slasher movies. But it's always been right at home in the opera house — Richard Strauss' intense, one-act opera, Elektra.

The tale dates back to classic Greek tragedies, and it revolves around what may be the most dysfunctional family in all of literature. The head of this disturbing household is King Agamemnon, who gets the emotional ruckus started by sacrificing one of his daughters, Iphigeneia.

Iphigeneia's fate upsets her mother, Klytaemnestra, who takes up with another guy while Agamemnon is off at war. When the King finally returns, she gives him just enough time to climb into a hot bath — and then kills him with an axe.

That murder doesn't sit well with their other daughter, Elektra, and she vows to get even with her mother for Agamemnon's death. That task falls to her long lost brother, Orestes, who returns home to find Elektra insane, and proceeds to kill both Klytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus.

As a whole, the family's story has even proven too much for any single opera. But a number of composers have dealt with its individual episodes. Gluck wrote a couple of operas about Iphigeneia. Richard Strauss decided to pick things up after Agamemnon's murder, with Elektra's vow to avenge his death at her mother's expense.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Strauss's Elektra in a production from the Washington National Opera, presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The stars are Susan Bullock as Elektra; Christine Goerke as Chrysothemis, Elektra's slightly more stable sister; and Irina Mishura as their mother, Klytaemnestra.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.
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