Patrice Chéreau’s now classic modern production of Elektra, which originated at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in 2013 just a few months before his death, returned to the Metropolitan Opera for the third time since its premiere there in 2016.  An open courtyard in stone color with a recessed alcove in the back on a platform remains a perfect timeless backdrop of the story of Elektra and her dysfunctional family. Costumes suggest a contemporary setting. Chéreau’s direction focuses our attention on a series of interactions between the main characters and the heroine, Elektra: her sister Chrysothemis, her mother Klytaemnestra, and her brother Orest. You get a clear sense of a woman who is deranged with rage and yet who retains a modicum of tenderness and sensitivity. Her inner conflict, when it is externalized as fulfillment of her revenge in the murders of her mother and her mother’s lover, results in her spiritual, if not physical, death.  

Lise Davidsen (Chrysothemis) and Nina Stemme (Elektra)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Nina Stemme reprised the title role in a brilliant and moving performance on opening night. Her vocal power may be a bit diminished, and she seemed cautious and tentative in the beginning, but as she warmed up, what emerged was a more lyrical, sensitive and thoughtful portrayal of a lonely and yet determined woman than a hysterical and wild madwoman as is often the case. Stemme’s voice was round and smooth with little hard edges, appropriate for this interpretation, while her high notes were clean and thrilling. She was on stage during the entire performance and it was hard to take one’s eyes off her even when she was not singing, so complete and sympathetic was her identification with the character. Her clear German diction conveyed every nuance in the dense text of the opera.

Patrice Chéreau's production of Elektra
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Stemme’s committed performance seemed to bring out the best from her colleagues. Lise Davidsen's portrayal of Chrysothemis as a naive victim of circumstances was glorious as she unleashed her enormous and full voice to express the young woman’s desires and longings. Her voice easily rode above the heavy orchestration, and yet she also reined it in to match Stemme’s tender phrasing in their intimate moments. Her entrance word “Elektra!” was uttered as a soft and tender whisper, as specified in the libretto. Davidsen may not be the most natural actress on stage, but her tentativeness here worked as an appropriate counterpoint to Stemme’s dramatic intensity. Michaela Schuster’s Klytaemnestra was performed as a flawed and frightened human being, afflicted by the consequences of her own deeds. Her scene with Elektra was unusually touching as the two women made an attempt to understand and reconcile one another until it was no longer possible to do so. Schuster’s rich middle voice articulated the character’s every doubt and fear with clarity and meaning without overly dramatic shrillness.

Michaela Schuster (Klytaemnestra) and Nina Stemme (Elektra)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

As Orest, the sisters’ long-lost brother and agent of revenge for their father’s murder, Greer Grimsley was rough in his grainy bass-baritone but acted the part as a tender and protective presence for Elektra. Accompanied by delicate strings, their recognition scene was one of the most beautiful and emotional moments of the entire performance. Grimsley added hesitancy as Orest calmly exited the courtyard at the end of the opera as Chrysothemis cried out his name, a nice touch to hint at the character’s humanity and subsequent hardship. Stefan Vinke brought his bright tenor to the thankless role of Aegisth. It was a pleasure to have Hei-Kyung Hong, her high notes still beautiful, among the talented ensemble of women singing the servant roles. 

Nina Stemme (Elektra) and Greer Grimsley (Orest)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

What was most striking about the performance was conductor Sir Donald Runnicles’ interpretation of the score. Except for a few well-chosen moments of high volume and intensity, he chose to conduct Elektra almost as a chamber opera, free of bombastic outbursts despite the size of the orchestra. The chronological sequence of Strauss’s oeuvre, Elektra quickly followed by Der Rosenkavalier, made sense under his baton as he emphasized subtle and gentle passages and waltz-like melodies sprinkled throughout the earlier opera. The brass section was subdued but well integrated within the rest of the orchestra, while the strings and winds were exquisite in their transparent and clear rendition. We were thus treated to a “different” Elektra, with all characters garnering our sympathy and compassion, and the orchestra acting as another voice to highlight the tragedy.