Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Elektra

Nina Stemme and Lise Davidsen Deliver an Elemental Performance of Strauss’ Epic

By M. Thaddius Banks
(Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

This is a review of the April 1st performance, the opening night of this production’s first revival at the Metropolitan Opera. 

To stage a successful production of Strauss’ “Elektra” is a monumental feat all its own, but to do it with such sophistication and finesse as the Metropolitan Opera’s Friday night performance is herculean. The complexity of the libretto and score are second to none in the operatic repertory. It was the first of several famed collaborations between Austrian librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the founders of the Salzburg Festival, and one of the great champions of late romanticism and early modernism, Richard Strauss. The libretto is a stunningly macabre exploration of the ancient play of Sophocles. Using the premise of Sophocles’ “Electra,” Hofmannsthal delves into the tormented mind of the titular character and uses her journey to vengeance and vindication as a vehicle to discuss themes of religious extremism, the ever changing perception of justice, and the deepening sickness that intergenerational trauma can generate in families stricken by tragedy. The orchestra is perhaps the largest ever used in all of opera. Strauss’ score is a whirlwind of complex themes and unexpected dynamic contrasts in a modernist tonal language that sends the listener ricocheting between agonizing torment and serene catharsis. The demands on the singers are staggering as they attempt to navigate the extremities of their instruments while both soaring above and piercing through one of opera’s most intricate and robust orchestral compositions for nearly two hours without intermission. The titular role, Chrysothemis, and Klytämnestra are reserved for the grand dames of the Wagnerian repertoire with opera stars like Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, and Christa Ludwig making acclaimed performances at the Metropolitan Opera since “Elektra” was first performed there in 1932. 

A Powerful Cast

For this performance, there were no-holds-barred with Swedish soprano Nina Stemme leading the cast, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen as Chrysothemis, and German mezzo-soprano Michaela Shuster as Klytämnestra.

Stemme’s performance was nothing short of breathtaking. She answered the role’s daunting demands with astounding nuance and virtuosity. In a score that can so easily become angular and rigid, she maintained flexibility, fluidity, and diversity of color throughout. Stemme, who is returning to this production after its triumphant opening in the 2015-16 season, embodied the twisted figure of the ever mourning princess in both body and voice. Nobility and authority came out of a haggard mess of tattered garments. The volatility of the role demands both manic uncertainty and stalwart confidence of the highest degree and Stemme rose to the occasion once again. Each scene encapsulated Elektra’s stunted progression through the stages of grief that binds her both musically and physically to the same spaces throughout.

Lise Davidsen portrayed Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sentimental sister bent on escaping the prison their home has come to be. Davidsen has a voice of such power and magnitude that it can hardly be comprehended. She had no trouble subverting the entire orchestra and her colleagues. Hers is a  bright, steely sound that swells tremendously in its ascent into her upper register. Her youthful air paired nicely with the severe and mature nature of Stemme. Undoubtedly, Davidsen can be counted among the great dramatic singers of German repertoire today and I see not only more of Chrysothemis in her future but eventually Elektra as well.

The role of Klytamnestra was performed by Micaela Shuster. Shuster is a master of the dramatic and perfectly embodied the tormented Klytämnestra. Her expressive use of diction and body movement created a dynamic representation of a highly complex character. Her creative use of movement, especially in regards to her beautiful costume, brought out the dramatic elements associated with the evil stepmother archetype that fits so well with the role.

Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley and Tenor Stefan Vinke portrayed Orest and Aegisth respectively. Grimsley and Vinke, both Veteran Wagnerians, executed the roles with ease and vindication. Grimsley’s mysterious and foreboding bearing was fitting for the murderous prince in exile while Vinke’s powerful high notes and compelling acting startled the crowd during the final death throws of the coward, assassin, and traitor Aegisth.

An Introduction to New Voices and the Surprise Arrival of a Beloved Diva

“Elektra”, while dominated by its principal roles, opens with a stirring scene featuring five maids who serve in the house of  Klytämnestra and observe the suffering and indignation of our titular character. This production’s cast consisted of Tichina Vaughn, Eve Gigliotti, Krysty Swann, Alexandria Shiner, and world-renowned soprano Hei-Kyung Hong. Shiner pierced through the chaotic texture of Strauss’ score for several moments of dramatic triumph. Her voice is a well-balanced one, with ease of sound and serious potential in this sort of repertoire- a debut to be proud of. Swann’s acting was superb and her voice well suited to the vindictive Third Maid that ever seeks the approval of her mistress and the demise of Elektra. 

The very presence of Hong, in the role of the Fifth Maid, was a real treat. A diva in her own right, she drew all the drama that could be taken from the Fifth Maid, the one servant in the house of Agamemnon still loyal to Elektra. Her voice oscillated between the dulcet tones of an older woman in distress to the cries of indignation and fear as her malicious counterparts ridicule her idol and beat her for opposing their views.

An Astounding Staging

The staging for this production was in perfect harmony with the reinterpretation of the ancient play by Hofmannsthal. He reframes the story to center around Elektra and her interactions with the rest of the cast and the late Patrice Chereau did much the same. There are no scene changes, no furniture appearing and disappearing, and no major changes in lighting. It is a dark, dull stage with a modern and minimalist approach to Greek Architecture. A strong juxtaposition to the score, it keeps the audience focused on the performers at all times. So intent was the production team on having the audience fixed on the stage, that they even had supertitles presenting not above the stage but on the walls of the set itself. It is a rare treat to turn off the subtitles on the backs of the Metropolitan Operas’ red velvet seats and be completely immersed in the drama onstage.

Maestro Donald Runnicles led the massive orchestra of over 100 pieces with laser precision. The immensity of the group inundated the hall with sound and teleported us to ancient Mycenae. The flexibility of the ensemble was astounding as they pivoted between horrifying climaxes laden with dissonant tonal modernism and the latent beauty of Strauss’  cathartic and transformative composition. The orchestra carried the cast and the audience along through the emotional roller coaster that is “Elektra” to its glorious resolution. With a stellar cast of singers old and new, sophisticated and complex staging and sets, and an orchestra unrivaled in opera, this revival is a tour de force. 


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