Behind the glorious excess of Strauss’ “Elektra” – the mythical framework of the libretto, the ruthless terror of the score – hides something smaller: a bare-framed family portrait, albeit knocked off the wall and scratched by shards of broken glass.
This has always been at the heart of the production by Patrice Chéreau, which returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening. But in this revival, you might get even closer to her two sisters, poles apart soprano roles sung by Nina Stemme and Lise Davidsen with spotlight brightness and painfully human sensibility.
The staging of Chéreau, created at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2013 before coming to the Met six years ago, does not seem to have aged a day. And it’s hard to imagine that happening anytime soon with a locationless production befitting the timelessness of Sophocles’ classic tragedy – which Hugo von Hofmannsthal adapted into a play for Freud’s age, then a libretto for Strauss’ opera.
The set, by Richard Peduzzi, is the grand and stern court of the vaguely Mediterranean home of a vaguely elitist family in vaguely contemporary dress (designed by Caroline de Vivaise). Where the production becomes more specific is in its deviations from the libretto: its lack of caricature and malice, its climactic danse macabre instead of a scene of stillness and life continuing in agony. Mostly bloodless where it could be a massacre, it’s the study of a family irreparably fractured by trauma.
This concept requires singers who can really perform. And Stemme stands up to her, if not always in voice at least in dramatic intensity, which has only grown since she sang the title role in the first outing of the Chéreau production at the Met. She’s never at rest: swaying as she stares straight ahead, eyes wide open with laser focus on the vengeance of her father, Agamemnon.
When Stemme sang about her death – a murder committed by Elektra’s mother, Klytämnestra, and her lover, Aegisth – her voice didn’t always cooperate, especially in her lower range. At times, she was visibly bracing for the role’s most punishing outbursts. Yet she pronounced them as if with the breath of a dragon, matched only by passages of painful delicacy.
Davidsen, as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, gave her best performance at the Met this season – able to show a fuller range than in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” last fall, and more in control of her huge instrument than during a recent Strauss series “Ariadne auf Naxos” and a benefit concert for Ukraine, in which she sang the composer’s “Four Last Songs”. Generally a better actress by her voice than by her physique, she wore here as much character in her sad face as Stemme in her eyes.
Passing on the news that his brother, Orest, was dead, “thrown and trampled by his own horses,” Davidsen let out a chilling moan — not for the last time that evening. Originally trained as a mezzo-soprano, she has a full-bodied lower range that’s just as thrilling to behold as her blazing high notes, and an imposing sweetness in more conversational moments.
She and Stemme were backed throughout by a Met Orchestra in excellent form under the direction of Donald Runnicles, whose reading of the score was noticeably in line with that of Chéreau. The opera seemed scarier and more chaotic – its bloodbath met with glare in many interpretations – but Runnicles insisted on the possibility of dramatic momentum on a smaller scale. And the evening was no less exciting; if anything, it was mesmerizing in its revelatory transparency, the layers of expressionistic color, softness and Wagnerian abundance piling up in counterpoint or weaving gracefully into each other.
There were standouts elsewhere – Hei-Kyung Hong as the overbearing and heartbreaking fifth maid – but also lapses among the directors. Michaela Schuster’s Klytämnestra was one of the obvious gestures and strained voice, which she sometimes sought to save with a declamation close to Sprechstimme. Chéreau’s production revolves around a sympathetic Klytämnestra; she didn’t quite make it. And men were shadows of their past appearances. Greer Grimsley’s resonant bass-baritone here was faded and labored, and not always easy to follow. As Aegisth, Stefan Vinke was barely audible – an earth-shattering turn for a tenor who sang roles like Siegfried, barking perhaps but at least with penetrating power.
You couldn’t help but feel bad every time they sang alongside one of the star sisters. What is always: Stemme never leaves the stage. It is, after all, his show – and, for this race, Davidsen’s too.
Until April 20 at the Metropolitan Opera; metopera.org.