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Soprano’s furious take on ‘Elektra’ builds to explosive finale at Lyric

Nina Stemme, who stars as Elektra, takes a bow Saturday during the curtain call on opening night for Lyric Opera's production of "Elektra." | Courtesy Lyric Opera

When the commanding Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, in her Lyric Opera debut, intoned Elektra’s tragic words “Alone! Alas, all alone,” I would have fastened my seat belt had it been supplied. Richard Strauss’ 1909 “Elektra” is a formidable operatic thriller from Greek history wrapped in gruesome myth. At its heart is the furious royal daughter of a murdered king, bent on revenge, who is about to round the crucial final turn in a treacherous quest to bring about the death of her culpable queen mother and the queen’s usurping royal consort.

‘Elektra’

★★★1⁄2

When: Through Feb. 22

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $37-$279

Info: lyricopera.org

Still watching and waiting, reduced to rags and robbed of her youth, yet fixated on her bloodthirsty goal, Elektra has lurked around the courtyard for years, eating with the dogs and enduring the palace workers’ ridicule. Strauss’ shocker has a Hitchcock-like intensity. In a nearly two-hour sweep during which Elektra is almost always present onstage, Stemme revealed herself as grieving daughter, cajoling sister, unrelenting warrior in spirit. If also hesitant, Hamlet-like, she is testing just how far she can go to prick her mother’s conscience yet stay alive. It was a revelatory performance by a soprano at the peak of her powers.

At the center of a fine cast and a first-rate performance by the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, Stemme caused the sonically resplendent Lyric Opera House to awaken around her, as if roused in sympathy to her strange loneliness, and then to her savage, deadly quest. Indeed the opera house itself was one of the evening’s stars, crowning Elektra’s shuddering fury with the strident brilliance of the composer’s proto-modern, turn-of-the century sound palette, and waxing voluptuous in the glowing recognition scene: Elektra reunites at last with her long-absent brother, Orest (Iain Paterson). Once Elektra and Orest are together, the story speeds hysterically toward its grotesque end; Elektra, rapturous witness to the killings, streaks herself with avenging blood and drops, stone dead.

Not that such a harrowing plotline needs any more excitement, but Chicago’s freakish sub-zero cold spell did its bit by forcing the cancellation of the company’s dress rehearsal. Meanwhile Stemme, who had lost her footing onstage earlier in the week, was moving gingerly, according to an announcement prior to curtain. Given the time cut short, and the funhouse skews of the tilted palace walls and leaning wreckage that characterized John Macfarlane’s sets, these hurdles may have been unsettling to the cast. But in truth the hitches had no perceivable impact. There was the usual opening-night adrenalin rush, and Stemme, who has sung this role in major houses in New York, Vienna, Berlin, and elsewhere, seemed unperturbed.

The gory tale of “Elektra” (in a production originally directed by David McVicar and revived here by Nicolas Sandys) was set forth in concise, consecutive scenes that played out in a foreboding courtyard with sunken bath. Towering walls enclose the space, leaning in so far they seem about to lose themselves to gravity’s sway. In a prologue of sorts, five maids in the royal household chatter about the vexing distraction that Elektra’s erratic behavior has become. (The lively quintet consisted of Ryan Center artists Lauren Decker and Ann Toomey with Mary Phillips, Krysty Swann, and Alexandra LoBianco.) Only one servant expresses sympathy for the displaced Elektra, which she is made painfully to regret.

Then follows Elektra’s soliloquy, and the unforgettable lines “Allein! Weh, ganz allein!’ that bespeak her solitary existence, and confrontations with her sister Chrysothemis, and her mother Klytämnestra. Elektra’s reunion with her brother Orest leads directly to the bloody deed foretold.

The forthright meeting of the two sisters — an argument, really — was an early musical and dramatic high point. The flitting radiance of South African soprano Elza van den Heever, as a sparkling and quite feminine Chrysothemis who longs for love and motherhood, made a thrilling counterpoint to Elektra’s heedless determination. One sister’s wish had no place in the other sister’s plan, notwithstanding the heavenly blend of their paired voices. Yet the easy, intimate nature of their body language made them instantly believable as sisterly combatants.

The facedown between Elektra and Klytämnestra (Michaela Martens) was compromised somewhat by John Macfarlane’s costume designs, which carried the darkness of Klytämnestra’s plight to cartoonish fashion extremes out of an X-rated Berlin nightclub scene. It was a bit hard to take seriously the madness working its way into this mother’s conscience given her kinked-up, top-heavy appearance, despite Martens’ excellent singing.

But the final scene was a knockout. Stemme and Paterson, sister and brother, reunite in tender joy and then commence their parents’ brutal murder, swept along by conductor Runnicles and rolling waves of orchestral sound. The last few minutes are intensely gripping, the emotional release of the musical transformation overwhelming, as Elektra’s awful waiting game rages to its bloody end. It’s the kind of payoff that gives grand opera its name.

Nancy Malitz is a local freelance writer.