Even before a note sounded, it was apparent that this would not be a conventional night at the opera: conductor Yannick Nézét-Séguin took to the podium in a black T-shirt, before leading lady Lise Lindstrom, dressed like a navvy, did a spot of welding inside an eight-metre statue – almost the sum total of the dark, bare set. There would be no eye candy (and indeed no Champagne-fuelled interval) during this one-act, 100-minute tragedy. The pleasure of Opéra de Montréal's first shot at Elektra would essentially be aural, as musicians and singers conveyed the full potential of Strauss' extraordinary, emotionally charged music.

Lise Lindstrom (Elektra) © Yves Renaud
Lise Lindstrom (Elektra)
© Yves Renaud

Premiering in Dresden in 1909, Elektra was adapted from Sophocles via a contemporary play by the opera's librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It focuses on the ostracised title character, obsessed with vengeance for her father, Agamemnon, who was murdered by her mother, Klytemnästra. Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis, though sympathetic, yearns for life's joys rather than revenge, but the return of their exiled brother, Orest, soon leads to bloody murder and Elektra's ecstatic demise.

American dramatic soprano Lindstrom was fiercely good in the demanding title role. An admirable vocal range carried her character from black rage and despair to the deceptive sweetness, even madness, expressed in her shimmering top notes – part of the emotional insight she brought to her powerful yet nuanced singing.

Agnes Zwierko (Klytämnestra) and Lise Lindstrom (Elektra) © Yves Renaud
Agnes Zwierko (Klytämnestra) and Lise Lindstrom (Elektra)
© Yves Renaud

Nicola Beller Carbone, Opéra de Montréal's previous Straussian femme fatale in 2011's Salome, was an appropriate counterpoint to Lindstrom as Chrysothemis: her soprano was warm and bright, her movements light and hopeful. Rounding out the central trio of women was mezzo-soprano Agnes Zwierko, who neatly conveyed Klytemnästra's exhaustion and anxiety.

From Alan Held's vocal and dramatic strength as Orest, to the minor roles, the cast was uniformly excellent, as was the Orchestre Métropolitain. Nézét-Séguin, whose star has risen a little higher each time he returns home to Montreal (recent triumphs include opening the Metropolitan Opera's 2015-16 season), conjured what was simultaneously an ideal accompaniment and a tour de force that left me wishing for a repeat performance sans singers. The orchestra, expanded to 85 musicians (Strauss' compromise for pits unable to accommodate Elektra's usual 100-strong band), played with exceptional fluidity, from a thundering ocean of brass and percussion, to an ominous pool of strings.

Had the performers not been at the top of their game musically, Alain Gauthier's bleak, stripped-back production could have left audiences wishing for the customary Champagne break. It's dramatically reserved, so that Elektra's triumphant dance, for example (despite Lindstrom being known for her dancing abilities), was reduced to the jerking and swaying of a madwoman wrapped in a dirty worksite sheet-cum-straightjacket.

The statue of Agamemnon © Yves Renaud
The statue of Agamemnon
© Yves Renaud

The minimal, fairly static set was utterly dominated by that monumental, Victor Ochoa-designed sculpture, which represented Agamemnon, the physically absent but psychologically omnipresent patriarch. Reminiscent of Rodin's Thinker, but twisted and crouched into a forbidding mass, the sculpture was intermittently rotated by Lindstrom, revealing different angles until the sculpture's accusing face is finally presented. Dramatic lighting was essential to this reveal, and at other key moments. However, nuanced darkness, and all it suggests, as well the stage smoke's sense of obfuscation, was just as critical as what light revealed and highlighted.

Costumes, which suggested the era of Elektra's première, were also restrained, dominated by greys and browns. Chrysothemis's demure red dress, and Klytemnästra's red and gold drapery and jewels, merely suggested the world of joy that every character was far removed from. Lindstrom, in baggy shirt and trousers, and wild, dirty locks, found all her character's gravitas within.

Which is true of the production overall, and this opening-night performance. Ultimately, leading-lady glamour, and a conductor in a smart suit, had no place in this relentlessly grim, bold and exciting journey into the heart of darkness.