If you take your seat early at the opera, normally there’s little else to do but thumb the program booklet or check out the sartorial choices of your fellow audience members.
At Saturday evening’s Minnesota Opera performance of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” at the Ordway, however, there was plenty happening on stage already as the early comers gathered.
For 20 minutes before the music started, a plethora of characters came and went, shifting scenery and chatting animatedly to one another.
It turned out they were gofers in a silent movie studio from the 1920s, the re-imagined context for an opera set in ancient Greece around the Trojan War period.
In director Brian Staufenbiel’s updating, the characters of Strauss’ opera are actually actors filming “Elektra” — a bloody tale of familial dysfunction — on a studio soundstage, with the orchestra on set behind them.
The Ordway pit — too cramped for Strauss’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink orchestra to fit in — was planked over, becoming a technical area for the movie’s director and production crew to move around in.
Fussy as it sounds, Staufenbiel’s decision to present “Elektra” as an opera within a movie largely worked.
At key moments a screen descended, showing footage of the singers in “Elektra: the Movie,” scenes cleverly created by video designer David Murakami using green-screen digital technology.
These flickering monochrome rushes dramatically focused the already feverish emotions of Strauss’ characters, provocatively upending the notion that we are generally numbed and rendered indifferent by images of on-screen violence and suffering.
Vocally, it was an exceptional evening. As Elektra, the vengeful daughter of a father killed by her own mother, the German soprano Sabine Hogrefe was incandescent, tirelessly nailing Strauss’ vaulting writing and acting with riveting intensity.
You need raw power for the part, and Hogrefe had it. But finesse is necessary, too, and it was movingly evident in the beautiful music Strauss gives Elektra as she reflects on her missing brother Orest.
The American mezzo-soprano Jill Grove brought equal intensity to the part of Klytaemnestra, who in the opera’s back story — shown in another silent movie mock-up before the opera starts — murders her husband Agamemnon.
Sporting an alarming crown of gilded porcupine quills, there was no mistaking the physical threat Grove brought to the character — and the psychological damage she was carrying.
Both Marcy Stonikas as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis and Craig Irvin as Orest made a vivid impression, completing a front-line vocal roster whose stamina never wavered through the 100-minute, intermission-free span of the opera.
The hiss and spit of Strauss’ convulsive orchestration is a major part of “Elektra,” and the young German conductor Elias Grandy paced the drama consummately, eliciting excellent performances from the 80-strong orchestra.
“Elektra” is a tough opera with tough messages about the propensity of humans to behave savagely to one another, and Staufenbiel’s reframing of the story line will not please everyone.
This “Elektra” is, though, one of the boldest shows in recent Minnesota Opera seasons, and vocally an unquestionable triumph.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.