Behind the glorious excess of Strauss’s “Elektra” — the libretto’s mythic setting, the score’s unsparing terror — is something smaller: a starkly framed family portrait, albeit one knocked off the wall and scratched up by shards of shattered glass.
That has always been at the core of Patrice Chéreau’s production, which returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night. But in this revival, you could home in even closer to just its two sisters, antipodal soprano roles sung by Nina Stemme and Lise Davidsen with floodlight luminosity and painfully human sensitivity.
Chéreau’s staging, which premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2013 before coming to the Met six years ago, doesn’t seem to have aged a day. And it’s difficult to imagine that happening soon with a placeless production that suits the timelessness Sophocles’ classic tragedy — which Hugo von Hofmannsthal adapted into a play for the age of Freud, then into a libretto for Strauss’s opera.
The set, by Richard Peduzzi, is the grand and severe courtyard of the vaguely Mediterranean home of a vaguely elite family in vaguely contemporary dress (designed by Caroline de Vivaise). Where the production gets more specific is in its departures from the libretto: its absence of caricature and villainy, its climactic dance of death instead a scene of stillness and life continuing in agony. Mostly bloodless where it could be a massacre, it is a study of a family irreparably fractured by trauma.
This concept demands singers who can truly act. And Stemme rises to meet it, if not always in voice then in dramatic intensity, which has only grown since she sang the title role in the Chéreau production’s first outing at the Met. She is never at rest: rocking as she stares straight ahead, her eyes wide open with laser focus on avenging her father, Agamemnon.
When Stemme sang of his death — a murder committed by Elektra’s mother, Klytämnestra, and her lover, Aegisth — her voice didn’t always cooperate, especially at the low end of her range. At times she visibly braced herself for the role’s most punishing outbursts. Yet she delivered them as if with dragon’s breath, matched only by passages of aching delicacy.
Davidsen, as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, gave her best performance at the Met this season — able to show a fuller range than in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” last fall, and more in control of her immense instrument than during a recent run of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” and a benefit concert for Ukraine, in which she sang that composer’s “Four Last Songs.” Typically a better actor through her voice than her physicality, here she carried as much character on her sorrowful face as Stemme did in her eyes.
Relaying the news that her brother, Orest, had died, “thrown and trampled by his own horses,” Davidsen let out a chilling wail — not for the last time in the evening. Originally trained as a mezzo-soprano, she has a full-bodied lower range that is just as thrilling to witness as her candescent high notes, and a commanding softness in more conversational moments.
She and Stemme were supported throughout by a Met Orchestra in excellent form under the baton of Donald Runnicles, whose reading of the score was sensitively aligned with that of Chéreau. The opera has sounded scarier and more chaotic — its blood bath met with bombast in many interpretations — but Runnicles insisted on the possibility of dramatic momentum at a more restrained scale. And the evening was no less exciting for it; if anything, it was riveting in its revelatory transparency, the layers of expressionistic color, sweetness and Wagnerian abundance stacking in counterpoint or weaving in and out of one another with grace.
There were standouts elsewhere — Hei-Kyung Hong as an authoritative and rending Fifth Maid — but also lapses among the principals. Michaela Schuster’s Klytämnestra was one of obvious gestures and a strained voice, which she occasionally sought to salvage with near-Sprechstimme declamation. Chéreau’s production hinges on a sympathetic Klytämnestra; she didn’t quite achieve that. And men were shadows of their past appearances. Greer Grimsley’s resonant bass-baritone was here faded and effortful, and not always easy to follow. As Aegisth, Stefan Vinke was barely audible — an upsetting turn for a tenor who has sung roles like Siegfried, perhaps barking but at least with penetrating power.
You couldn’t help but feel bad whenever they sang alongside one of the starring sisters. Which is always: Stemme never leaves the stage. It is, after all, her show — and, for this run, Davidsen’s, too.
Through April 20 at the Metropolitan Opera; metopera.org.