The prospect of a premiere production at the Metropolitan Opera typically generates advance speculation and high hopes among fans. But the director Patrice Chéreau’s production of Strauss’s “Elektra,” which opened at the Met on Thursday night, has already been deemed a landmark of contemporary opera staging.
A collaborative venture by several companies, it was introduced toacclaim at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France in 2013. A DVD of that “Elektra,” filmed at the festival, was released the following year.
Still, nothing prepared me for the seething intensity, psychological insight and sheer theatrical inventiveness of this production on Thursday night, conducted by the brilliant Esa-Pekka Salonen, Mr. Chéreau’s partner in this venture from the start. A superb cast is headed by the smoldering soprano Nina Stemme in the title role.
The Met’s presentation was to have been a second joint engagement for Mr. Chéreau and Mr. Salonen, who made overdue company debuts in 2009 with a harrowing production of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead.” But Mr. Chéreau died at 68 a few months after his “Elektra” opened at Aix. It must be a bittersweet return for Mr. Salonen, who honors his colleague by drawing a performance of uncanny transparency and simmering fervor from the Met orchestra, which sounded inspired. (Vincent Huguet is credited as stage director.)
Strauss’s inexorable one-act opera, first performed in 1909, tells the story of the house of Agamemnon. Hugo von Hofmannsthal adapted the libretto from his own play, which was based on Sophocles’s “Electra.”
The setting is the inner courtyard of the murdered Agamemnon’s palace in ancient Mycenae. Mr. Chéreau updated the period to a vaguely contemporary one. Richard Peduzzi’s set depicts the palace as a spare, ominous place, with tall, grim stone walls, dark crannies, side rooms with prisonlike doors and, in the background, the private quarters of Klytamnestra, Agamemnon’s widow, and her lover, Aegisth, who together ruthlessly killed the king before the action of the opera starts.
When the lights go up, we see Strauss’s maids and other serving women in dingy housedresses (the costumes are by Caroline de Vivaise) sweeping the stairs and cleaning the courtyard grounds in eerie pantomime, until the first gnashing orchestral blast sets the bloody tragedy in motion.
Updating can be a lazy way to layer an opera with slick contemporary associations. Mr. Chéreau employed it to strip a work to its essentials, as he does in this penetrating “Elektra.”
As several artists involved with the production at Aix explained in a collective interview with The New York Times, Mr. Chéreau viewed “Elektra” as the tale of a dysfunctional family consumed with hatred and driven to violence. “He didn’t want to portray anybody as a sort of hysterical, incoherent person,” Mr. Salonen explained.
Elektra is consumed with carrying out vengeance upon her mother and Aegisth for murdering her father. But this production reveals better than any I have seen the wild-eyed Elektra’s subliminal fears and strange impotence, qualities that come through with terrifying intensity in Ms. Stemme’s stunning performance.
Every day, Elektra clings to hope that her valiant brother, Orest, will return and exact revenge on their mother and the sniveling Aegisth (Burkhard Ulrich, a bright-voiced tenor in a Met debut). She keeps an ax at hand for the deed, wrapped in a cloth and hidden away. Why can’t Elektra carry out the punishment herself? The reason might seem obvious: She’s a woman. But what Ms. Stemme suggests is that Elektra has become a daughter paralyzed by her desire for revenge.
For Strauss-lovers, the soprano Christine Goerke set a high bar as Elektra when she sang the role spectacularly in a concert performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last year. Ms. Stemme is also a phenomenon. She brings a cool, focused voice, abundant power, chilling top notes and, in moments of doubt, anguished beauty to her singing.
Two pivotal members of the original Aix cast take part in this run: the soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as the frail sister Chrysothemis and the veteran mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier as Klytamnestra. Ms. Pieczonka’s rich, clear voice conveys Chrysothemis’s affecting vulnerability. Yet in moments of frustration and despair, her singing has bright, piercing power. This character is a young woman horrified by her mother’s brutality. Yet she is nearly as horrified by Elektra’s fixation on murderous revenge. Chrysothemis wants a fuller life, a husband, a child to tend; she would happily be given away to a peasant and raise a family, she says. Elektra treats her sister like a simpering weakling.
Mr. Chéreau’s take on Klytamnestra is the great revelation of this production, and Ms. Meier, one of the most compelling singing actresses in opera, carries it off with conviction and complexity. Klytamnestra, after all, had reason to despise the power-crazed Agamemnon, whom she blames for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia. When Ms. Meier’s Klytamnestra bitterly confronts Elektra for stalking around the palace like a hate-spewing maniac, she does not sing her phrases like shrieking accusations; rather, she inflects the lines with subdued fear and genuine distress, which is much more moving. Here is a powerful woman trying to hang on to power, if only she can banish her guilt-driven dreams.
The bass-baritone Eric Owens is a deeply sympathetic Orest. In many performances, the character arrives as a sullen but stalwart savior. Mr. Owens’s Orest, pretending at first to be a messenger, walks into the palace grounds almost unnoticed. In fact, he has come to punish his mother and Aegisth; but, as he tells Elektra during their wrenching reunion, the gods have ordained this role for him. This Orest seems a man operating under divine bidding yet filled with doubts. Mr. Owens’s husky body almost sags with the burden of responsibility; his rich, muscular voice is suffused with suffering.
As performed by the orchestra under Mr. Salonen, the rapturous, sighing reunion scene was overwhelming. You might have expected that, being a composer, he would emphasize the shocking, modernist character of Strauss’s score. He almost did the opposite, drawing out every moment of Straussian lyricism, glowing string sound and delicacy, though the vehement outbursts were steely and terrifying. In the most unmannered way, he revealed the dramatic arc and restless sweep of the music.
I still think that the New York Philharmonic missed a potentially great opportunity by not convincing Mr. Salonen to become its music director. On Thursday, the Met announced that James Levine would step aside as the company’s music director at the end of the season, after more than 40 years of devoted work and achievement. So that post is now open. Why not Mr. Salonen?
At the end of the opera, after Klytamnestra and Aegisth have been killed, Elektra can finally fulfill her fantasy of dancing over their just demise. But Ms. Stemme’s Elektra was incapable of dancing; her limbs were stiff and immobile; she looked shaken, almost catatonic.
Who is Elektra, if not the daughter who lives every day for vengeance? That’s the question this remarkable production explores.