A new production of Elektra  in Vienna with Nina Stemme  making a role debut of the title heroine naturally raised expectations.  The soprano more than met the challenge, and seemingly carrying the torch passed onto her from her Swedish predecessor, Birgit Nilsson, made an extraordinary vocal and artistic display.

Director Uwe Eric Laufenberg chose to set the opera in the basement of a Viennese townhouse circa 1910, the year after the opera’s première in Dresden. Instead of a courtyard, Elektra was confined in a dark coal-filled basement, equipped with a white-tiled shower on stage right.  The basement was connected to the rest of the house with a pair of lifts on stage left.  The muted tone of black and white seemed to reflect the librettist Hofmannstahl’s conception of Elektra as a “mixture of night and light, dark and bright.”  The lifts were illuminated in a woody golden color when in motion.  While there were somewhat distracting directorial touches, such as a parade of dead bodies and body parts in the lift after the two murders, and Elektra being joined by other dancers in her joyful dance, at the end of which she simply left the stage rather than collapsing, the production overall told the story in its stark simplicity.

The costumes were in keeping with the monochrome colors. Elektra was dressed in a black man’s suit, at once signifying her alienation from her female sexuality and the conventional world. Her sister, Chrysothemis, who yearns for a normal woman’s life of marriage and children, wore a girlish white lace dress which could double as a bridal dress. Elektra’s mother Klytämnestra was elegantly dressed in a long jeweled light colored sheath and a rich golden robe. The servants wore functional, almost military looking garb, as did the men.  

Sexual ambiguity of the dysfunctional family headed by the murdered father Agamemnon (in the excised text there was a very strong reference of his sexual abuse of a young Elektra) was here expressed as an almost incestuous encounter of Elektra and her long-lost brother Orest. During their recognition scene, Elektra removed her mannish jacket and pants to reveal a simple black dress as she and her brother embraced. The music of their duet is distinct from the rest of the opera with its lyrical and tender melodies while most of the opera’s music is thunderous, with syncopated, sometimes speechlike rhythm. The staging implying the possible sexual relationship between brother and sister was jarring, but not incongruous if it was only through an incestuous relationship that Elektra can experience tender love. 

Nina Stemme chose to depict Elektra not so as a clearly demented and crazed animal, but as a sullen, calculating, and rebellious outsider biding her time for revenge.  She began her first utterance “Allein! Weh, ganz allein” quietly and contemplatively, yet her voice soon gathered volume and strength to become a force of nature. She paced herself carefully but her energy and concentration never flagged.  Her voice was huge, cutting through the big orchestra easily throughout the register.  She was able to modulate her voice in volume and color to express the character’s shifting mood and thoughts. Her rich middle voice was particularly splendid; high notes were approached lightly rather than attacked forcefully but then bloomed fully as she let out the climaxes. It was simply a thrilling, riveting, and well articulated performance. Her acting was exemplary, and her encounters with her sister, her mother, her brother, and her stepfather all showed off her ability to use her voice and body to interact with and react to her surroundings.   

As Chrysothemis, Ricarda Merbeth, replacing the indisposed Anne Schwanewilms, began rather tentatively with unsteady high notes. Her middle register was strong, however, and blended well with Stemme’s voice in their duet.  Merbeth improved as the opera went on, and she produced a beautiful high note towards the end.  One would have liked a more youthful and joyous singing to contrast with Elektra’s, but it was still a credible performance.

Anna Larsson as Klytämnestra was an unusually elegant and statuesque character and sang with beauty and lyricism rather than with declamatory wailing and shouting sometimes heard. This Klytämnestra was a physically frail and sorrowful figure who wanted nothing but forgiveness from Elektra, and her despair after Elektra’s manipulation of her - first faked understanding, then rejection - seemed to utterly devastate her both vocally and physically.  

Falk Struckmann as Orest cut a striking figure on stage in his fur-collared leather trench coat. His deep voice carried authority and dignity but unfortunately the wear and occasional wobble of the voice, especially in higher register, marred his otherwise moving performance.  Norbert Ernst was an excellent Aegisth in his brief appearance, his voice clear and bright, his singing nuanced without becoming a caricature.  Wolfgang Bankl made a solid teacher to Orest. Among the minor characters, Ildiko Raimondi’s fifth serving woman and Ulrike Helzel’s third maid servant made strong impressions. The former was particularly effective as the only clear-voiced defender of Elektra among the servants; her role was highlighted in her white costume, while others wore drab gray.

The Orchestra of Vienna State Opera played with their usual magnificence and mastery of the score, especially in the strings and brass sections, althoughthere were very minor issues in the winds at the beginning.  As conductor Mikko Franck stated in his published interview, subsequent performances should provide the “opportunity of improving things.”