Lise Davidsen and Nina Stemme Star in ‘Elektra’ at the Met

Behind the glorious excess of Strauss’s “Elektra” – the mythical setting of the libretto, the unsparing horror of the score – is something smaller: a tightly surrounded family portrait, though one of the walls is slammed and scratched by sharp pieces of glass .

That has always been at the heart of the production of Patrice Chéreau, who returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night. But in this revival, you can be at home in even closer to just his two sisters, antipodal soprano roles sung by Nina Stemme and Lise Davidsen with floodlight clarity and painful human sensitivity.

Chéreau’s internship, which premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2013 before coming to the Met six years ago, does not seem to be getting a day older. And it is hard to imagine that this would happen soon with a placeless production that fits in with the timelessness of Sophocles’ classic tragedy – which Hugo von Hofmannsthal adapts into a play for Freud’s age, and then into a libretto for Strauss’s opera.

The set, by Richard Peduzzi, is the large and stern courtyard of the vague Mediterranean house of a vague elite family in vague contemporary dress (designed by Caroline de Vivaise). Where the production becomes more specific is in its deviations from the libretto: the lack of caricatures and villains, its climate dance of death instead of a scene of silence and life that continues in pain. Usually anemic where it can be a bloodbath, it is a study of a family that has been irreparably broken by trauma.

This concept requires singers who can really act. And Voice meets it, if not always in voice, then in dramatic intensity, which has only grown since she sang the title role in the first appearance of the Chéreau production at the Met. She is never at rest: rocking as she stares straight ahead, her eyes wide open with laser focus on revenge her father, Agamemnon.

When Voice of His Death sang – a murder committed by Elektra’s mother, Klytämnestra, and her lover, Aegith – her voice did not always cooperate, especially at the bottom of her range. Sometimes she made herself visible to the most punitive outbursts of the role. Yet they delivered themselves as with dragon breath, corresponding only to passages of painful 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 enormous instrument than in a recent run of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” and a benefit concert for Ukraine, in which they sang the “Four Last Songs” of that composer. Typically a better playwright by her voice than her physique, here she carried as much character on her sad face as Voice in her eyes.

By conveying the news that her brother, Orest, had died, “thrown and trampled by his own horses,” Davidsen let out a cold wail – not for the last time in the evening. Essentially trained as a mezzo-soprano, she has a full-fledged lower range that is just as exciting to witness as her erect high notes, and a commanding softness in more conversational moments.

She and Stemme were supported 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 sounded scarier and more chaotic – his blood bath met with bombast in many interpretations – but Runnicles stood on the possibility of dramatic impetus on a more limited scale. And the evening was no less exciting for that; if anything, it was riveting in its revelatory transparency, the layers of expressionist color, sweetness and Wagnerian abundance stacked in counterpoint or weaving in and out of each other with grace.

There were standouts elsewhere – Hei-Kyung Hong as an authoritative and rendering Fifth Maid – but also falls under the main characters. Michaela Schuster’s Klytämnestra was one of clear gestures and a tense voice, which she occasionally tried to save with almost spoken voice declamation. Chéreau’s production depends on a sympathetic Klytämnestra; that has not quite reached her. And men were shadows from their previous appearances. Greer Grimsley’s resonant bass baritone had disappeared here and there, and effort, and not always easy to follow. As Aegisth, Stefan Vinke was barely audible – a striking turn for a tenor who has sung roles as Siegfried, perhaps barking but at least with penetrating force.

You could not help but feel bad when they sang next to one of the sisters. What always is: Voice never comes from the stage. After all, it’s her show – and, for this run, Davidsen’s, too.

Elektra

Until April 20 at the Metropolitan Opera; metopera.org.


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