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Richard Strauss had a way with a warped legend, the ability to bring it to life in all its barbaric reality. And such was his success with "Elektra," based on Sophocles' tragedy - the story of one woman's relentless quest for blood vengeance.

Elektra is no shrinking violet. She is half crazed and coldblooded. She hungers for the death of her mother, Klytemnestra, who along with her paramour, Aegisth, killed the husband and father, King Agamemnon of Mycenae.You will not like these people, but you will watch and listen in fascination as the Metropolitan Opera kicks off its 18th year on public television with the Strauss opera this week (10:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, on Ch. 11 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, on Ch. 7).

Indeed, Elektra's tenderhearted sister Chrysothemis, who longs only for children, is the sole normal person in a cast of aberrations. Actually, this is one of those stories that probably works better in musical form than as a drama.

While every element in this opera works, it is to conductor James Levine and Hildegard Behrens, the Elektra, that greatest credit is due. Levine leads one of opera's finest orchestras, and under his skilled hands the music emerges as one long, velvety stream, ebbing and flowing, filled with tension and building suspense.

Behrens is one of those singers who can sound weak and stringy on a bad night. But she's still one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos around, and when she blooms and takes fire as she does in this telecast, there's no one better. She's on almost the whole time of this two-hour, one-act opus, and she dominates the stage, either with her glorious singing or her dramatic intensity. The handsome face is a wonder, a study in the emotions that come into focus there.

This is a women's opera, in that practically all the characters are women, and a hardy, rich-toned lot they are. Brigitte Fassbaender makes a rare appearance as Klytemnestra, and she's another fine actress, magnificent in her robes, petulant and fearfully hesitant, her voluptuous lips incarnating evil, and the voice is still steady and flexible. This role is too often given to an over-the-hill singer, so it's good to hear it really sung.

Excellent support comes from Deborah Voigt as Chrysothemis, whose full, golden quality accords with her womanly preoccupations, and complements Behrens. The five servant women who open the scene with their gossip are a resplendent lot, each a vocal headliner in her own right.

While the men have little to do, their parts are well handled, especially by Donald McIntyre who impacts in his tiny appearance as the avenging Orest, and James King, long a sustaining tenor at the Met, who looks and sounds robust as Aegisth.

Costumes by Jurgen Rose are rough-textured, shapeless and coarse, with touches of pagan splendor for the royalty, and his settings just what you imagine primitive Greece to be. Especially effective is the backstage procession, ordered in haste by Kly-tem-nes-tra and smokily lit by Gil Wechsler, which evokes the feeling of an ancient royal house in turmoil.

You might elect to pass on this telecast, because the music and story are unfamiliar. If so, you will miss a real sleeper (if you can say that about a work so loud, assertive and gripping).

A further "Metropolitan Opera Presents" program is scheduled Dec. 28, a double bill of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" and Puccini's "Il Tabarro," with Teresa Stratas appearing in both and Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti as her stellar tenors.

Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" on April 26 will feature Domingo and Cheryl Studer. (These dates are national, not necessarily local. As the time approaches, check KBYU and KUED schedules.)