In an era when overly sumptuous sets and dauntingly mediocre music mar too many operas, this week's Boston Symphony Orchestra production of ``Elektra'' ranks as an unqualified artistic triumph. The Wednesday event, being repeated here tomorrow at 8 p.m. and next Friday at Carnegie Hall in New York, brings together renowned singers Hildegard Behrens and Christa Ludwig in the Richard Strauss setting of the Greek tragedy. Both singers have also performed their roles at the Paris Op'era, with BSO music director Seiji Ozawa conducting.
The opening performance was a marvel of vocal prowess and superb operatic acting, buoyed by an inspired reading from Ozawa, masterly playing from the orchestra, and capable support from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
The crowd gave the performance a warm reception, which might seem surprising when one recalls that ``Elektra'' traffics not in sweetness and light but anguish, hatred, vengeance, madness, and murder. One of the evening's greatest accomplishments is turning this assortment of felons into human beings capable of evoking a modern audience's sympathy, rather than mere pawns of ancient and inscrutable gods.
The action is staged, with the help of consultant Seth Schneidman, on a series of platforms positioned above the orchestra. These suggest the palace courtyard of the slain King Agamemnon, where his daughter Elektra awaits the return of her brother, Orest, who will wreak vengeance on their mother, Queen Klytemnestra, for the murder of Agamemnon.
Behrens is a pitiable and restrained Elektra, whose face and gestures vividly mirror each mood of music and lyric without ever crossing over into melodrama. The voice is powerful and lustrous, with no hint of stridency even at the end of this two-hour marathon. Ludwig is a well-matched Klytemnestra, whose anguish, fear, and strain are palpable in her expressive vocalizations and her well-paced movements.
Nadine Secunde's performance as Chrysothemis, the sister whose loyalties waver between mother and siblings, is skilled, fully nuanced, and beautifully sung. Though not quite as polished, Brian Matthews's Orest is full bodied and evocative, particularly in the poignant ``recognition scene'' duet. James King's appearance as the Queen's lover, Aegisth, is vocally competent and well acted. The music of the covey of servants, though expressively sung, sometimes gets lost in the overpowering orchestral textures.
Ozawa skillfully guides the 100-piece orchestra without resorting to the printed score, seeking out every ounce of lyricism in this agitated, sometimes bombastic work and showing great sensitivity to the singers' needs.