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Elektra 3By the time Nina Stemme and Esa-Pekka Salonen reached the thrilling climax of Elektra’s grimly determined opening monologue Thursday evening, no one in the Met audience was thinking about that afternoon’s startling retirement news. The haunted Mycenae of Patrice Chéreau’s enthralling production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra had seized its viewers in an unrelenting vise that never relaxed even at its quietly shattering conclusion. 

Sadly Chéreau, who finally debuted at the Met in 2009 with a revelatory From the House of the Dead by Janacek, did not live to remount this Elektra dying shortly after its premiere at the 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival. However, his assistant Vincent Huguet did an admirable job in realizing Chéreau’s fascinatingly intimate world of haunted women paralyzed by a brutal past.

Rarely has the Trojan War seemed so distant—and not just because Richard Peduzzi’s stark sandstone façade and Caroline de Vivaise’s simple costumes evoked the present day. Elektra’s fraught interchanges with her mother, sister and brother were refreshingly down-to-earth and confidential, far from the over-the-top, scenery-gnawing ancient-world encounters one often endures. In particular Klytämnestra greeted her recalcitrant daughter with cautious hope, and Elektra, at her mother’s feet, embraced her with a wounded neediness that was both shocking and touching.

In contrast to the traditional battered hag, Waltraud Meier’s glamorously tormented queen desperate to escape the guilty dreams caused by her part in Agamemnon’s murder quietly sought a real connection to, and help from, her alienated daughter. That expiation, of course, could not happen thanks to the inexorable curse on the house of Atreus.

Orest makes that next inevitable step possible but in Chéreau’s bleak vision he returns solely to fulfill his role as matricide–it is his guardian who stabs Aegisth–and in the final moments of the opera he numbly departs (perhaps already chased by his Furies) leaving his sisters to deal with the aftermath. There is no release, no fortuitous death-by-dancing for this shell-shocked Elektra.

Elektra 2Strauss’s anti-heroine is a relatively new assumption for Stemme who sang her first Elektra just a year ago in Vienna. While one occasionally wished for more chiaroscuro in her interpretation, this was a hugely impressive portrayal, sung with ferocious power and unremitting intensity. While others have brought a more febrile electricity to Elektra’s obsessions, Stemme’s steady, slow-burning mania proved just as effective.

Unlike many solipsistic daughters of Agamemnon, Stemme beautifully conveyed an eager personal connection to those around her, particularly to her wildly unhappy sister. One never felt she was simply manipulating Chrysothemis to achieve her revenge. Stemme’s momentary ambivalence toward her mother was particularly arresting, and her ecstatic reaction to Orest was movingly tempered by her shocked awareness of how much this single-minded task had cost her.

As with her Turandot earlier this season, Stemme does have a tendency to punch out her money notes, but they are enormously powerful and on target. Otherwise, her dark soprano excelled in a full rich middle, though perhaps her diction could be more forthright and pungent. As effective as she was in Elektra’s more aggressive music, her soaring, sorrowing reaction to Orest was an extraordinary high point, and she ended the opera as strongly as she began it.

Eric Owens can come off as uncomfortable on stage but in this case his stiff deportment served well his single-minded Orest. His big, grainy bass-baritone yielded little of the heady relief that one expected at his longed-for reunion with his sister: he was all about the bleak job ahead.

Elektra 4As his nemesis Aegisth, tall handsome Met debutant Burkhard Ulrich unfortunately sounded harsh and small-voiced. A younger character tenor, rather than an over-the-hill heldentenor, is an interesting choice for this short but crucial part, but Ulrich immediately called to mind that bad-old phrase I used to see so often in Opera Magazine back in the day: “unnecessary import.”

Three decades after her Met debut Meier remains one of the most fascinating performers on the opera stage, although it must be admitted that her lithe high mezzo sounded far from ideal as Klytämnestra. Her canny, colorful use of words made up for much in the queen’s long monologue though one always missed the rich lows a more contralto-oriented mezzo brings to the role.

Particularly effective was Meier’s subtle playing of the final moments of her confrontation with Elektra—no grotesque cackles or shrieks for “Mehr lichter”—she simply took the unread note announcing Orest’s death and confidently left the stage as the merest hint of a smile crossed her face.

A veteran of the Aix premiere like Meier, Adrianne Pieczonka portrayed a refreshingly un-hysterical Chrysothemis. She made Elektra’s bored dissatisfied sister an unusually sympathetic character, a no-longer-young woman desperate for what she sees as her last chance for a “normal” life as a wife and mother. If she lacked the ideal freedom on top, her tangy soprano still rang out excitingly particularly in the vibrant celebratory pages near the end of the opera.

The five serving maids were a hearty bunch, crowned by the poignant return to the Met after almost exactly 25 years of Roberta Alexander as the Fifth Maid. At 67, she displayed the shards of a still-shining soprano. Usually cast with a young over-eager soprano, Chéreau transformed the character into the family’s old nanny, quietly devoted and eager to defend Elektra and the first to recognize Orest. Susan Neves also returned in fine form as the Overseer, the role in which she made her Met debut 24 years ago at the ill-fated premiere of the Otto Schenk production.

James Levine was Elektra’s only Met conductor from 1980 to 2002 and the opera’s previous revival in 2009 was led by Fabio Luisi. Thursday’s premiere was the opera’s 102nd Met performance and it can rarely have ever sounded as gorgeous as it did under Salonen, whose intense, slow conducting revealed countless fascinating details and supported but never covered his intrepid singers.

The orchestral explosion after Elektra’s cries of “Orest!” nearly always overwhelms me, but I can’t ever remember it drawing forth such a steady stream of tears. While an unusually expansive reading, it gathered exciting momentum in the final quarter hour, building to a surprisingly shattering musical climax—in stark contrast to the poignant shocked stasis on stage.

Chéreau’s Elektra has arrived at the Met 40 years after the premiere of his controversial and influential Bayreuth Ring. In those intervening decades, so-called Regietheater has become the hotly contested topic in opera, particularly as it invades the relatively conservative world of the Met. Perhaps Strauss and Hofmannstahl might not have immediately recognized their Elektra Thursday night, but Stemme and Salonen’s sterling collaboration did do the opera’s creators proud. And they also did considerable honor to their indelible co-creator’s memory.

Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.