How big is the appeal of the Orpheus myth to artists in general and composers in particular?
It is incalculable. How can a composer resist the temptation to compose music that will subdue the god of the underworld and allow Orpheus to enter Hades and reclaim his beloved Eurydice? Remember she was bitten by a snake and died on their wedding day.
The first surviving opera, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, was first performed in 1600. Another Eurydice by Peri’s competitor Giulio Caccini was produced in 1602. In the following 420 years, give or take, more than 90 operas based on the Orpheus and Euridice story have been composed. And there is no end in sight.
Composer Matthew Aucoin and playwright/librettist Sarah Ruhl have teamed up to bring us their version of the myth in Eurydice which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on November 23, 2021 and was subsequently shown in some theatres Live in HD and on PBS.
Almost all previous treatments of the myth bear the name of Orpheus but Aucoin and Ruhl have opted for Eurydice alone with good reason. It is mostly about her.
Orpheus and Eurydice are happily playing on the beach like the young lovers that they are. Orpheus (sung beautifully by baritone Joshua Hopkins) is a dedicated musician, so much so, that Aucoin provides us with another Orpheus, a Double in fact (sung by countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski) who represents the musical spirit or perhaps the divine part of our hero. He has wings. I suppose then that we have the human and divine Orpheuses on stage but it seemed rather awkward and unjustified to me.
Eurydice is the main character of the opera and is sung with distinction by soprano Erin Morley. This Euridice is lured away from the wedding party by an unsavory and mysterious man. In short, she tumbles into the underworld.
We have already met her Father (a marvelous bass-baritone Nathan Berg) who has special privileges in the underworld and was able to write a letter to his daughter on her wedding day. The letter is delivered by the mysterious man who turns out to be none other than the lecherous Hades (a versatile and humorous tenor Barry Banks), the god of the underworld.
The Mary Zimmerman production with sets by Daniel Ostling features the unrealistic but brightly lit beach scene at the beginning, then the darker route to the underworld and finally the menacing world of Greek hell. There are some unpleasant restrictions there and people cannot remember anything or speak. Eurydice’s father has gotten around it. But we do have a chorus of three hideous stones (Little Stone - soprano Stacey Tappan, Big Stone - mezzo Ronnita Miller and Loud Stone - tenor Chad Shelton). They look like huge, gray, chiseled rocks.
Ruhl emphasizes the relationship between the Father and Eurydice and in fact it is central to the opera. Orpheus does go the the underworld and Eurydice follows him out but she is not sure that she wants to be with him instead of staying with her father in the underworld. The plot complications follow and the ending may surprise some. It is a new opera and I will not disclose how it ends.
There is some brilliant music and some lyrical passages such as Eurydice’s area “This is what is to love” but I found many passages monotonous. The core of the myth is surely the power of love that makes Orpheus descend to the underworld in search of Eurydice. We want to hear how he manages to get into the underworld. We have no great aria to lull Charon, the ferryman who delivers the souls of the dead across the river Styx, to sleep and gain entry. One misses something like the great “Possente spirto” from Monteverdi’s’ L’Orfeo. There is no Charon in this opera.
Ruhl ha added some extraneous material in the libretto including the Father and Eurydice reading a few lines from the last scene of King Lear where the king and Cordelia dream of happier times to come. It is hokey and unnecessary.
Except for the attire of the regular residents of the underworld, the characters wear modern costumes. Hades is dressed more elaborately as becomes his position.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted an energetic performance by the Met Opera Orchestra.
It is an interesting take on an old myth but it may take more viewings to appreciate the new work fully.
The 2021 production of Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin ran at the Met until December 16, 2021, and is now available On Demand. For more information visit www.metopera.org