The eponymous heroine of Richard Strauss’s 1909 opera Elektra arose from the mists of antiquity, but she personifies an archetype that only the bravest few would dare mention in the current climate: the hysterical woman. Sophocles’ original play tells the tragic tale of the House of Atreus as a lesson in the power of fate. Agamemnon, a hero of the Trojan War, returns from his martial triumph only to be murdered in his bath by his wife and her new consort. The royal children’s reactions vary, with the dispossessed heir, Orestes, disappearing to plot vengeance while Elektra dwells on her murdered father’s memory and looks forward to future vengeance.
Strauss’s operatic version came on the heels of his searing and provocatively transformative pseudo-Biblical opera Salome (1905), about the deranged Judean princess who meets her vicious end after tempting her stepfather, Herod, into giving her the head of John the Baptist. Strauss adapted Elektra less from Sophocles than from a modern dramatization of the ancient tale by the Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who would become his long-time, if not exactly happy, librettist. Immersed in psychological studies of what used to be called “hysteria,” Hofmannsthal presents a version of Elektra that has suffered in recent times from that term’s politically incorrect connotations, even if it did lend a name to the famous Jungian psychological complex associated with obsessive daughters. Many productions try to make Elektra “relatable” because of her immense suffering. At the same time, they make her powerful, because she at least holds out for the vengeance that her brother Orest delivers while refusing to succumb to her sister Chrysothemis’s codependent fixation with getting on with domestic life in an unspeakably bad situation. Other productions have indulged in the insufferably bourgeois trope of the dysfunctional family, of which the scions of Atreus merely form an extreme iteration. The Metropolitan Opera’s current production, for instance, which is shared with many European theaters and is loosely set in a nightmarishly bland 1950s-era nowhere, even leaves Elektra alive at the end, despite the fact that the score and the drama both leave no possible outcome other than her death.
Sir David McVicar’s production, which returned this month to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is more traditional. Its set, by John Macfarlane, is dominated by gray tones that scream out urban decay, but it serves the work far better than the Met’s version. Elements of this production may strike some observers as garish—Elektra’s nasty mother, Klytämnestra, looks like a Mad Max villain, with a rotund, misshapen torso stuffed into a disturbingly revealing outfit. She has a penchant for human sacrifice, with a likely victim brought out for death only to be abandoned when Elektra joyfully tells her that she is the sacrifice everyone is waiting for. At the end, a trick of the stage allows the blood of Klytämnestra and her slain lover Aegisth to flow down the steps of the decrepit palace. Elektra wades in it, true to a vision she stridently voices earlier in the opera, but the literalism may go a touch too far.
Chicago spared no effort in bringing together an excellent ensemble to support the long-overdue company debut of the splendid Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. Well-practiced in high dramatic roles on stages the world over, she has at last brought her cool, collected tone to the Windy City. With gripping control, natural talent, and faultless technique, she modulated through the title role’s obsessive narrations, creepy observations, and perverse confrontations. Her large, expressive eyes alone were enough to capture Elektra’s tortured personality—here darting about to detect persecutors, there silencing the other characters with a glance. Elza van den Heever reprised her splendid Chrysothemis, which she also performed at the Met, with an equally powerful impression. In her confrontation with Elektra about the merits of revenge versus family, she was a worthy sparring partner, at least in voice. Michaela Martens sang menacingly as Klytämnestra. Her outlandish costume got in the way of the best articulation of the character’s inner torment—a strange mixture of guilt and self-justification—but her voice did not. Iain Paterson was a righteous and stentorian Orest: a smaller part, but one decisive in resolving the action. Robert Brubaker sang Aegisth as obnoxiously as necessary to preclude any sympathy for the louche character’s miserable death.
The conductor Donald Runnicles, also in his company debut, infused the performance with intriguing subtlety, and admirably resisted the natural temptation presented by the score to push the orchestra—one of the biggest in opera—so hard that it drowns out the singers. His approach has not been not universally successful (a judgment I feel qualified to make after sitting through two rather pedestrian Ring Cycles led by him with two different companies), but here it was perfectly well suited to the wavering dynamics of Elektra as the opera’s omniscient narrator. “Do I hear the music—it comes from me!,” she exclaims in a line that ostensibly answers Chrysothemis’s question about whether she hears celebratory strains heralding the double homicide. But the line can also be understood as a fourth-wall-breaking admission that her fractured mind and murderous thoughts have produced the dissonant score.