One can only imagine the opening night of Richard Strauss’ Elektra in Dresden in 1909. He had refused to allow journalists to hear so much as a note of the work; rehearsals were closed and no piano-vocal score was published. Dresden shops sold Elektra beer mugs and boots! Even for a city that had seen the opening of the same composer’s Salome just four years earlier, Elektra, based on Sophocles’ ghastly family drama of murder and loathing, expressionistic, dissonant, challenging – indeed, brutal and shockingly loud – startled. Seen as psychologically probing as it was offensive, and as realistic in its depiction of repugnance and obsession as it was confrontational, it nonetheless drove the audience to a standing ovation.

Nowadays audiences know what to expect, and if they do not, the opera’s gigantic opening three chords – which, we later discover, are the first three syllables of the name of Elektra’s murdered father, Agamemnon, as she sings it a few minutes later – allow them to experience the work’s intensity immediately. The sheer ugliness of the music he composed for Elektra’s mother, Klytaemnestra, remains horrific and frightening. There are times when a solo violin crawls around Klytaemnestra’s vocal line like a snake poised to strike; music can threaten and menace. Elektra’s final Dance of Death is arguably the most grotesque and demented waltz ever composed. But at the same time, there is great beauty, even if it is invariably couched in tragedy and sadness. When, early in her opening monolog, Elektra sings “Wo bist du, Vater?” and lingers on the soft note of the first syllable of the word “father,” one can feel her pain.

The Met’s revival of Patrice Chéreau’s final directorial outing is a powerhouse of complexity. The non-specific updating on Richard Peduzzi’s sets place us in a drab, gray/brown courtyard with tall walls and useless windows. Not satisfied to just see the work as a study in hate, Chéreau clearly focuses on the three women – Elektra, her sister Chrysothemis, and their mother Klytaemnestra – who are left to perform a hideous emotional ritual once the ruling force – Agamemnon, father and husband – has been removed from the picture. Brother/son Orest has also disappeared and the women are left, unable to extricate themselves from their abhorrence and powerlessness. Men loom over the action, but they are absent. At the opera’s close in this production, after the murder of Klytaemnestra and her husband, Aegisth, the avenging Orest slowly leaves the scene. Elektra remains alive and stupefied, never to have wreaked revenge.

At the opera’s center is Elektra, a marathon role. Elektra must cajole, threaten, scream, and express tenderness, in turn, all the while inviting the audience to sympathize with her grief, her rage and her insanity. The voice must be able to rise over the huge orchestra and ride the climaxes (“Louder, louder! I can still hear the singers,” Strauss was reported to have said during rehearsals). Not enough can be said about Christine Goerke’s undertaking of the role in the cavernous Met; she commands the stage, she commands the notes, she commands the tension. She haunts the stage. This was a complete performance: each nuance, each mood change, each drab of sarcasm in her scene with Klytaemnestra, each moment of pleading with Chrysothemis, and the radiant warmth and relief as she recognizes her thought-dead brother, Orest, was spotlessly clear. The singing itself was miraculous, with nothing held back at any register or volume, and every feeling was wrung from this most bizarre character.  

The surprise of the evening came from soprano Elza van den Heever, a singer who has impressed in Mozart and Donizetti at the Met. Ever the fine artist with dramatic flair, nothing could have prepared us for the flood of sound, rock-solid top notes and intensity of purpose. Poor Chrysosthemis – what an empty life, without even the flame of revenge to give her hope. She was desolate on stage at the end; two sisters alone. Debutante Michaela Schuster got through Klytaemnestra’s 12-tone music with panache and even a bit of sympathy: she may be the guilty mother and wife, but her world and the hatred that surrounds her keep her as isolated as the others.

Mikhail Petrenko’s Orest was a pillar of stoicism that broke character momentarily to embrace his sister; he sang with power and focus. This was not true of Jay Hunter Morris’ Aegisth; let us hope he was having an off night. The maids and servants, integral yet shadowy, impressed.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin allowed the orchestra to unleash a shocking amount of fury but, just as importantly, the orchestra also mirrored Elektra’s tender moments and her epic sadness. Even playing at frenzied force, the Met Orchestra was accurate, its tone stunning, dynamics scrupulous. The low strings could be felt, the brass rang out with power and security and the spicy woodwinds pierced the air. Nézet-Séguin sped up the already wild tempo for Elektra’s final Dance, and when it ended, finally the audience could breathe again.