Magnificent Futility: Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ at the Met

A powerful take on Elektra


“I was a corpse among the living,” recalls the heroine of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in her fleeting moment of triumph at the end of the opera. In Patrice Chéreau’s slow-simmering but ultimately shattering production of this work that premiered at the Met Thursday night, Elektra is not the only corpse: Hatred, resentment and terror have left a whole community spiritually lifeless.

The 1909 opera is adapted from librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play of the same name, which was in turn a free adaptation of Sophocles’ classic tragedy. The freedom lies not so much in the plot, which Hofmannsthal copied closely, but rather in mood and underlying theme. Whereas Sophocles treated such themes important to the Greeks as revenge, justice and family loyalty, Hofmannsthal decked out his play in the most stylish intellectual idea of the early 20th century, the psychology of Sigmund Freud.

Similarly, Strauss wrote his music in the fashionable manner of the 1900s, post-romanticism, a style that might be called  “Wagner, only rather more so,” featuring enormous orchestrations and vocal lines so daunting that the Met, like virtually every other opera house in the world, takes a number of significant cuts in the music for the title character.

Whether classic or post-romantic, the story tells of Elektra’s obsessive desire to see her long-lost brother Orest execute their mother Klytamnestra for the murder of their father Agamemnon. Strauss and Hofmannsthal upped the ante by depicting these oversized emotions as something akin to madness.

Chéreau’s characters seem drained of affect. For them, bloody revenge has become mere drudgery, no more glamorous than the listless sweeping and mopping the palace’s serving women do in the work’s opening scene.

This manner of playing against the text works brilliantly, most notably in the scene in which the guilt-wracked Klytamnestra seeks advice from her surly daughter. Despite the character’s extravagantly eerie entrance music, Waltraud Meier seemed only mildly peeved, her distress apparent only in a tiny hand-wringing gesture. Later, in Elektra’s celebrated dance of vengeance, Nina Stemme was quickly reduced to a few random spasms, ending frozen in catatonia on a stone bench.

That the production design—Richard Peduzzi’s ghastly, anonymous industrial space and Caroline de Vivaise’s wan modern dress costumes—echoed Chéreau’s bleak vision was no surprise. But the vocal performances fit into the somber scheme as well. Ms. Stemme’s dark, grainy soprano soared only occasionally, mostly melding with the orchestra as an expression of grim determination. Ms. Meier’s slight mezzo, wielded with virtuoso skill, stripped away the grandeur of Klytamnestra’s torment, leaving behind only a dull ache of remorse.

Despite his luxurious bass-baritone, Eric Owens sang with such restraint as to make the character of Orest seem ambiguous and sinister. In contrast, the hard-driven high vocal lines of soprano Adrianne Pieczonka made the virtuous sister Chrysothemis feel self-indulgently out of sync with the malaise surrounding her.  If debuting tenor Burkhard Ulrich made little of his single scene as the slippery Aegisth, the veteran soprano Roberta Alexander seemed to warm up the stage in the much tinier part of the Fifth Serving Woman. Even better, her brief solo early in the opera revealed a confident, soaring a voice scarcely touched by time since her days as a fixture of the Met back in the 1980s.

Complementing the sobriety of production and performances was the exotically gorgeous conducting of Esa-Pekka Salonen, highlighting myriad colorful details in the orchestration. His unconventional brisk tempos accomplished the miracle of making this very dense score sound youthful and fresh.

Hanging over this project is another tragedy: the death of Mr. Chéreau two years ago soon after he created the original version of Elektra for the Aix-en-Provence Festival. But the Met’s posthumous production glows with a serene truth: Even a tale of utter futility can be magnificent if it is told with Chéreau’s clarity and passion.

Magnificent Futility: Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ at the Met