A new production of Richard Strauss’s dramatic opera Elektra at the Met, even though the production had already been unveiled in Aix-en-Provence in 2013, was a widely anticipated event. The late director Patrice Chereau’s modern retelling of the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl, who also wrote a play, did not disappoint. With a committed ensemble of singers ably directed by Mr Chereau’s collaborator Vincent Huguet and the Met Orchestra in fine form led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who also conducted in Aix, it was a performance of sheer intensity mixed at times with transparent beauty, an unforgettable evening at the opera that left the audience in rapt attention throughout the hour and forty minutes before they rose in an ecstatic ovation.

Mr Chereau interpreted the story of Elektra’s revenge of her father’s murder by her mother and the mother’s lover as a family drama focused on three women, Elektra, her mother Klytämnestra, and Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis. Elektra was depicted here not so much as a blood-thirsty daughter with father complex but as a deeply troubled woman rendered helpless by stress. Klytämnestra, often a hysterical and crazed woman racked with guilt, was a mother with nightmares who longed to connect with her daughter Elektra. Chrysothemis, who represents a “normal” woman longing for domestic bliss, was here a steady rock of the family, the only one to stand tall at the end of the opera. There was even a hint of her romance with a male servant. Throughout, there were subtle but compelling directorial touches. In keeping with the character of a non-demonic Klytämnestra, the customary laugh she emits upon learning the false news of Orest’s death was omitted, making her even more human.   

The recognition scene, musically and dramatically central to the opera, where Elektra at long last recognizes her long-lost brother Orest, who returns to commit vengeful murders, was particularly effective. Elektra went to the side of the stage where she slumped to the floor to sing “Orest, Orest, Orest.” Nina Stemme, known for her dramatic Wagner roles, floated her high notes beautifully here accompanied by soft strings and woodwinds that played the music of joy and relief with such aching subtly that she broke your heart.  

Ms Stemme was central to the success of the performance, choosing to husband her vocal resources with superb control during her ubiquitous presence on stage throughout the entire opera. Her singing at first was restrained and her characterization emphasized her internal conflict. She was a manipulative sister and daughter to the two women. It was at the recognition scene that she finally let loose her powerful voice, singing with clarity and beauty. Her thrilling high notes were mixed with subtle shading of the text. Having sung the role for the first time only a year ago, it was already a complete portrayal, and will only improve from here. 

The other two women were sung by the veterans of the Aix performance. Adrianne Pieczonka, returning to the Met after many years of absence, sang the punishing role of Chrysothemis with warmth and commitment. Her top notes were both supple and beautiful, and her acting showed her to be a concerned but level-headed woman, ready to take control of her destiny at the end of the opera while Elektra was left as a catatonic living corpse. Veteran Waltraud Meier, reprising Klytämnestra, was an arresting stage presence. Her lower voice was perhaps a little diminished, but not her elegant phrasing and radiant high notes. The mother-daughter scene uncharacteristically involved some physical intimacy, and we almost believed that they could reconcile, such was the power of acting by both Ms Meier and Ms Stemme. 

Eric Owens was effective as Orest, with his booming bass easily penetrating the thick orchestra, and his scene with Ms Stemme was touching. Mr Chereau took a directorial liberty to have another veteran soprano Roberta Alexander play the fifth maid, usually a young woman, and had her and an old servant recognize Orest, rather than the dogs of the house as described in the text. The two servants’ greeting of Orest accentuated his pivotal role in the opera, even though his vocal lines are minimal.

Mr Salonen chose to bring out the complexity and subtly of Strauss’ music, and avoided bombastic noise making, even in the opening scene. His conducting was measured in the beginning, but never languid. The pace quickened thrillingly as the drama moved onto its inevitable conclusion. The Met Orchestra responded to his conducting with beauty, intensity and urgency. The brief chorus at the end resonated powerfully.