Perhaps more than any other opera by Strauss, Elektra is a drama about the sense of hearing. It belongs to the phantasmagoric realm of listening, and it affirms, like few other operas, the power of music alone to fire up the listener's imagination. In this sense, it renders the transitions between its own different layers of reality, between the here and now of Elektra's agony and her reliving of her father's murder at the hands of her mother and her mother's lover, in a way that obscures the borderline between that terrible past and the soon to be horrible present. The article investigates these transitions in the opera.
The crime against her father, Agamemnon, has burned itself into her soul, and it directs all her experience afterward. Elektra's retribution of the past injustice is no more than an imagined restoration. Her revenge remains a private matter; it does not resurrect any moral order and does not re-create the basis for a new community. The radicalism of this lack of morality is overwhelming, especially if we consider that Hofmannsthal's libretto departs from Sophocles only on this main point.
A different notion of time, articulated through Strauss's music, strikes through the ongoing present, takes hold of it, and becomes predominant. This is the time in which Elektra lives. We witness a strange battle between remembrance and forgetting as Elektra's present actions are driven wholly by the effort to forget the present in order to restore the past. All is in vain, of course, because it is impossible to reverse time. Everything is too late. This belatedness becomes Elektra's destiny.
Directors often lean heavily on Elektra's resolution of her predicament in the fulfillment of full-blown revenge, which ends with a going out of time at the very moment when the border between lived real time and fantasy time collapses. Yet what if emphasis were placed elsewhere? The article raises this question as a pressing one, in connection with Peter Konwitschny's staging of Elektra in the new theater of the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, February 2005. In Konwitschny's staging, the decisive event, the precipitating trauma, is no longer, as in Strauss and Hofmannsthal, something that has long since happened when the curtain rises and that rules every succeeding event from an inaccessible point in past time. Instead, the precipitating trauma is drawn into the opera itself. The article tries to show how this interpretation has consequences that change the work. Elektra's destiny does not become less shocking, but rather shocks us in a different manner.