Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, March 15

Strauss’s Elektra is a savage treatment of a savage story, expressed in a brutal musical language that he never utilized again. Warm, winsome family comedy it’s not.

The saga of the House of Atreus, the original dysfunctional family, is a study in barbarous relationships. Clytemnestra–mother of Elektra, Orestes, Chrysothemis, and Iphigenia–became the wife of King Agamemnon by force after he murdered her first husband and their infant. Agamemnon then sacrificed Iphigenia to the gods on his way to the Trojan War and brought back a mistress, King Priam’s daughter Cassandra, and a couple of out-of-wedlock children. Clytemnestra and her lover, Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus, murdered Agamemnon in his bath and lopped the heads off Cassandra and the kids for good measure. Seven years later Orestes is in exile, Elektra is brooding and dreaming of revenge, and Chrysothemis just wants to get married and have a normal life. Orestes returns and kills his mother and Aegisthus. In Greek myth Elektra, vengeance accomplished, settles down to life with a husband and kiddies. In Strauss’s 1908 opera she performs a more dramatically satisfying (if difficult to stage believably) ecstatic dance and dies on the spot.

In The Greek Myths Robert Graves paints this legend as one of a number of tales of sacred kingship: in a matriarchal system devoted to the worship of a triple goddess the king typically served for seven years and then was ritually murdered, and Graves found all the stigmata of that pattern in the tale of the House of Atreus. Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, found a different subtext in this, the first opera in their great collaboration. Freudian psychology named its Electra complex after the protagonist’s excessive devotion to daddy; typically dirty-minded, it assigned libidinal impulses to a daughter’s monomaniacal love for her father. The operatic Elektra (von Hofmannsthal preferred the Greek spelling) has more neuroses than a week’s worth of Oprah Winfrey and a very unhealthy worldview indeed.

Elektra was not Strauss’s first outing with obsessive Mediterranean princesses; he had already written a setting of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. But Salome is a study in lyrical decadence, a tone poem with voices that sing in exquisite images even as they express depravities. Elektra is dark, ugly, and cacophonous, reveling in the worst aspects of human nature: incest, violence, cruelty for cruelty’s sake. The music reflects this perfectly, and there are only two moments of any beauty in the entire score: in the recognition scene between Elektra and Orestes, and in Chrysothemis’s line, “Es ist der Bruder drin im Haus!” The huge orchestra, heavy on the winds, punches out shock value.

Yet Strauss, having opened the door to descriptive atonality with Elektra, slammed it shut with his next work, the sparkling Der Rosenkavalier, and never opened it again. It has been fashionable over the years among academicians who manage to enjoy the music of Alban Berg to deride Strauss for “turning his back on the music of the future.” But he didn’t turn his back so much as stand aside: that musical vocabulary did what he needed it to in Elektra, but it wouldn’t work for the other operas he wanted to write.

Elektra, long recognized as a classic, has been a slow sell to audiences because it’s a tough show to experience, given its musical-dramatic intensity and the rawness of the emotions on display. It’s also a tough show to cast: the title role may be the longest and most demanding in the soprano repertory. It didn’t make it into Lyric Opera repertory until 1975 (the voice of the unfortunate Brenda Roberts simply disintegrated), but it was done again just two seasons ago.

Given the high quality of that version, the timing of this production seems a little odd. But Orchestra Hall has seemed to suffer from a case of proscenium envy in recent seasons, beginning with the financially disastrous Mozart-da Ponte cycle that was staged at the start of Daniel Barenboim’s tenure as music director. (The pattern will continue next fall, when the CSO presents Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the start of its fall season; as the Lyric’s season will already be under way, there could be problems rounding up enough good choristers and instrumentalists.)

This show was that modern hybrid, a “semistaged” production, which can mean anything from characters in costume with props but no sets to characters in coordinated concert dress moving a little (the case here). Since the stage was full of instrumentalists, the singers were, rather imaginatively, put on a sort of catwalk above them. To make the faux opera house complete, a screen was hung for surtitles. It was helpful not to have the performers chained to their scores and music stands, but a semi-staged opera (no director was credited, but this was a great deal more than random milling about) has its own problems–as when Orestes exited stage left and Clytemnestra’s death cries then emanated from stage right.

There’s no point in doing Elektra without an Elektra, and Deborah Polaski was stunning in the role. She comes from Wisconsin but has built her career and reputation in German opera houses, starting with small companies and working her way up to Bayreuth and Berlin. This is a strong voice that cuts through the orchestra. Some of her high notes became edgy and thin as the evening wore on, but the overall effect was splendid. Her intense acting as the unpleasantly obsessed princess complemented her vocal work. Her performance alone justified scheduling the opera.

Alessandra Marc, as Chrysothemis, has a comparably large and frequently lovely voice, though she has a tendency to swoop in places. Unfortunately, her acting ability is minimal, and she suffered in comparison to Polaski. Ute Priew, as Clytemnestra, was at times inaudible; she had the queen’s fears and jitters down, but lacked her visceral nastiness. As Orestes, bass-baritone Falk Struckmann was vocally blustery and physically stiff, a graduate of the semaphore school of operatic acting. Tenor James King, who used to sing Wagnerian heroes, looks and walks like an old man but amazingly still has his old nobility of tone–too much, actually, for the slimy Aegisthus.

The smaller roles were all well done, though this production underlines another inherent problem of concert and semistaged opera: without the concealing effects of makeup and wigs, it’s jarringly apparent that the Old Tutor is quite a bit younger than the “youth” he counsels.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (supplemented by ringers) acquitted itself splendidly; this is the sort of work in which its marvelous brass section can best be appreciated. Barenboim conducted it in a performance that was obviously well considered and conceived; it was some of the best and most exciting work he’s done in his tenure here. One quibble: when Elektra sings at the end that the music she hears comes from within her we had to take her literally because the backstage chorus that sings “Orest!” over and over was omitted, presumably to save money.