Stemme and Davidsen Bring Vocal Brilliance and Brotherly Complexity to The Met’s ‘Elektra’

Lise Davidsen as Chrysothemis and Nina Stemme as Strauss’ title role Electra. Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

There Were No April Fool’s Antics About The Metropolitan Opera Premiere Electra of the season. With Nina Stemme in the title role, Lise Davidsen making her highly anticipated debut as Chrysothemis, and Greer Grimsley as Orest, the company has assembled a hard-to-match cast. Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra was just the icing on the cake.

Although dissimilar in many ways, Stemme and Davidsen had a natural ease together on stage that made their brotherhood plausible. There’s little levity in the drama and the sisters’ relationship is complex, but Stemme showed a bit of playfulness as she rode Davidsen, trying to convince her it was her duty to murder. Klytamnestra and Aegisth. One could imagine them in happier times, before their mother married the man who murdered their father, at gambling rather than at loggerheads.

Perhaps it’s this chemistry that made Stemme’s Elektra seem lighter and more nuanced, both psychologically and vocally, than when she first appeared in the role at the Met in 2016.

Stemme’s voice has darkened a bit in recent years, but that only adds to the intensity of his Elektra. There were piercing high notes, but also full, vibrant notes, echoing through the room.

Stemme’s Elektra was surprisingly feminine at times, especially during the recognition scene, where she reminds Orest that she too was once beautiful with long, luxurious hair. For a moment, this Elektra was not so different from her sister.

But Elektra’s obsession with revenge has slowed her down mentally, as well as physically. Elektra’s attempts to dance as she imagined her triumph over Klytämnestra and Aegisth’s demise were awkward and hesitant. After the murder there is neither ecstasy nor triumph; Stemme’s Elektra is mute and still, as if turned to stone.

Grimsley’s Orest showed the same familiar bond when he realizes the seemingly deranged woman is his sister. As much paternal as fraternal, the emotion was no less real. Grimsley sang as he appeared – stoic, imposing and solid.

Davidsen was among his vocal peers. At the first performance of Ariadne in Naxos Last month, the soprano sometimes overpowered other singers on stage, but that was not the case on Friday night. On the rare occasions when Strauss allowed Chrysothemis to give full voice to his emotions, Davidsen filled the Met with a thrilling sound like few singers can.

However, Davidsen’s Chrysothemis was not limited to her voice, and Davidsen also evoked the young woman’s dreams. Young, brash, and just a little clumsy, her Chrysothemis was sometimes temperamental and sometimes determined. She is very much like her mother with her willingness to let the past pass, so she can move on with her life.

Schuster’s Klytämnestra was an elegant woman, not a bejeweled, debauched harridan, as is so often the case. If maternal love didn’t emanate from her, there was nevertheless a sweetness in some of her interactions with Elektra. Vocally, she was also a multi-faceted villain. The power was there, but also moments of sweeter, more beautiful singing, where mother and daughter seemed to be engaged in actual conversation, rather than the constant lightning bolts of each other.

Stefan Vinke, who sang Siegfried at the Met, was a luxury cast as Aegisth. Nicely dressed in a jacket, vest and pants, Vinke only had to show off the stage a bit and get stabbed in the back.

As a young servant, tenor Thomas Capobianco impressed with a combination of physical energy and booming voice. Mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughan and soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, who has sung lead roles at the Met since her debut in 1984, were clear crowd favorites among the maids rushing through the palace.

Travelers by Patrice Chéreau Electra, which was first seen at the Met in 2016 and relaunched in 2018, is simple, yet impressive. Updated to an unspecified modern era, the setting is a barren inner courtyard with massive stone walls and a large archway that leads to the interior rooms of the palace. The only color comes from a red carpet that the servants place on the landing when Klytämnestra deigns to visit Elektra. Subtle lighting depicts the passage of the hours of the day.

From the ominous four-note theme that opens the opera, Runnicles instilled drama into the performance. The tension he summoned from the orchestra before Klytämnestra entered, and later as Orest entered the palace to kill her, was overwhelming.

The Met Orchestra looked glorious, but it wasn’t all loud and creepy. Runnicles injected lightness and shine into Strauss’ score whenever possible. At times, the luminous, transparent sound of the strings seemed to transport us to 18th century Vienna. Der Rosenkavalier.

Runnicles’ sense of rhythm and balance was evident at all times. The latter, in particular, was key to presenting Davidsen to his best advantage. She wasn’t the only one enjoying a spin on the scintillating sound carpet that Runnicles so expertly summoned from the Met Orchestra, however.

Electra continues until April 20. metopera.org

Sharon D. Cole