The woes of last week’s Polar Vortex event in Chicago extended all the way to Lyric Opera, forced to cancel dress rehearsal for Elektra.  So, Saturday night’s opening performance was the first time in decades that Lyric had presented an opera sans Dress.  

Then at curtain time a Lyric rep came onstage to announce that our Elektra, Nina Stemme, had injured her knee during rehearsals and asked for our indulgence if her stage movement was affected.

But once Strauss’ tale of blood vengeance began, these considerations melted away.  Sir David McVicar’s deliciously over-the-top production (the revival director is Nick Sandys) is rooted in mythology without setting a specific time or place.

John McFarlane’smarvelous “ruined palace” set was populated at the beginning by shaved-headed maids brutalized by their Overseer in fascinating costumes inspired by North African tribal traditions.  The production is a visual feast somewhat akin to the Grand Guignol.

Stemme made a titanic Lyric debut in the title role.  Of course, she had the character’s frenzied fury at her father’s murderers in hand, but she had far more nuance—at times this Elektra was seductive, sympathetic, loving, even humorous in her bitterness.

And what singing!  She opened her monologue quietly, almost in repose, until she reached the phrase “Wo bist du, vater” when she unleashed a remarkable column of rich, warm sound that we were to hear over and over all evening.  It is an enormous voice—some of her brilliant high notes had me shaking my head in admiration.

Stemme had plenty of the requisite power needed to soar over Strauss’ huge orchestration, yet also brought moments of exquisite soft singing.  She also displayed admirable dramatic commitment throughout and even her slightly impaired stage movement was appropriately moving.

I had heard Stemme on recordings before, but nothing prepared me for the magnitude of her voice and performance in the house.

I had some concerns at the very start of the opera that there were numerous voices in the Maids scene that simply weren’t big enough to soar over the orchestration.  I think the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Donald Runnicles was tampering their dynamics a bit to try to solve this problem, but even our Chrysothemis, Elza Van Den Heever, failed to fully register in her first scene—she seemed not fully warmed up.

But from her next entrance, beginning with “Orest ist tod!”, she began pulling out all the stops and matched Ms. Stemme’s intensity and power for the rest of the 100-minute piece.

Michaela Martens was excellent as a semi-deranged Klytamnestra with powerful low notes and full dramatic power.  Entering with her bizarre entourage (including a chubby jester in a red onesie capering about the stage), she sang and acted with authority, chillingly describing her gruesome illnesses and terrifying dreams.

In this production, there was nothing of the restrained matron recently seen in Waltraud Meier’s version in the Chereau production—Martens started full throttle and expanded from there.

Iain Patterson’s Lyric debut as Orest was less successful—good vocalism but lacking in stage presence and bland in characterization. Tenor Robert Brubaker, on the other hand, was stellar as a very drunk and lecherous Aegisth.

Runnicles led a glorious, potent reading of Strauss’ heavy orchestration, with tremendous work from the brass section and wonderfully transparent sound from the harp. Runnicles seemed to have a perfect sense of playing for the singers, pulling back the sound for quieter moments and driving the powerful climaxes to thrilling effect.

But above all, this was Nina Stemme’s night.  It was a great pleasure to hear her, apparently at the apex of her vocal powers, making this difficult dramatic soprano role all her own.  When the blood poured down the palace stairs and Elektra covered her hands and face with it just before her death, the drama of revenging Agamemnon was fully realized.