The Washington Post
In ‘Eurydice,’ the underworld is truly heavenly
new york — A formidable challenge faced composer Matthew Aucoin and playwright/librettist Sarah Ruhl in adapting “Eurydice,” Ruhl’s retelling of the Orpheus myth, for the opera stage.
How to upgrade Ruhl’s intimate vision of the underworld to the grand scale of opera without sacrificing its delicate structure, its uncanny intimacy or its surreal sense of humor?
If Tuesday night’s premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was any indication, the answer is: effortlessly.
“Eurydice” is a beguiling tour of the underworld and an arresting tour de force from a composer clearly hitting his stride.
Ruhl’s 2003 play situates the doomed heroine of the Orpheus myth at its center, pulled irrevocably between two worlds: One above, alive with her new love, where their future together awaits, and one below, in the underworld with her deceased father, where her entire past is rinsed away by forgetfulness.
Her writing is characterized by a lightness that often belies its own heaviness, a silliness that can turn somber with the drop of a single phrase. It’s a kind of emotional dexterity that directors struggle to preserve even without an orchestra chiming in.
Aucoin matches the nimbleness of
Ruhl’s text throughout, with a shapeshifting score that floods the underworld — its gray stone walls the texture of burned wood, a bleak black moon hanging in an empty sky — with rich, kinetic color.
From the overture onward, Aucoin demonstrated his keen ability to navigate between the emotional worlds of the opera, veering from haunting evocations of loss and mourning into vertiginous episodes and even a clangorous dance party. Woodwinds winnow upward like flowers through the soil. Gnarly blasts of horns bend and plummet in ferocious glissandos. It’s an energetic, restless, surprising score that, at times, feels like its own character.
Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-séguin beamed from the pit, managing the steep contours and sudden impulses of the score with ease and grace.
Aucoin is also a master of effects, capturing the “strange high noises like a tea kettle always boiling over” in the underworld; the sinister ping! of forgetfulness that greets the newly dead; the bad techno played at a wedding party. As Hades hunts for the right mood music with which to seduce Eurydice, a snatch of Vivaldi escapes from the hi-fi in his high-rise apartment.
Soprano Erin Morley was superb, masterfully handling some of Aucoin’s more gravity-defying requests, which here and there flutter and flip like a sheet of paper in the air. A stunning centerpiece aria (“This is what it is to love an artist”) brought her powers into focus — her voice is lithe, lean and luminous, and her tone stayed consistent and strong throughout the opera’s three acts.
Aucoin splits the role of Orpheus — his earthly form sung with force and fire throughout by baritone Joshua Hopkins, and his otherworldly double sung by countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski, whose silken lines were a bit too frequently overwhelmed by his partner.
When the two Orphii did strike the right balance, the effect was sublime — the peculiar penmanship of Orlinski’s voice tracing elegant figures around Hopkins’s steely delivery. (Orlinski’s slightly sprightly evocation of the character also permitted him to show off some of his break dancing chops during more bacchanalian moments.)
Bass-baritone Nathan Berg and tenor Barry Banks appeared to be engaged in a conspiracy to steal the show — Berg as Eurydice’s forlorn father, Banks as Hades himself. Berg’s performance was stirring — a mix of tenderness, torment and hammy dad vibes. His aria in the third act veers into a set of driving directions (“Take Tri-state South — 294 — to Route 88 West”) yet still deals an emotional gut punch.
Banks’s Hades was a highlight of Tuesday’s performance (and an indication of just how well Aucoin can compose a character). His tenor is white-hot, piercing through the orchestra, threatening to burst into flames as Hades, in his sleazy green leisure suit, leers at Eurydice and stretches the syllables of her name into a sinister design.
Delightful, too, was the chorus of stones — generally unhelpful attendants of the underworld and reliable sources of comic relief — sung by Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller and Chad Shelton.
Perhaps most impressive about Tuesday’s premiere was how the balance of woe and wit extended into nearly every aspect of the production. Choreographer Denis Jones was as skilled at lending elegance to the skulking denizens of the underworld as with fashioning a wedding party dance that would kill on Tiktok.
Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes mixed stunning creativity (the stone chorus was at times nearly completely camouflaged by the set) with wryly phoned-in accoutrements — such as the craft-shop golden wings of Orpheus or the store-bought horns and tail of Hades.
Even the projections (S. Katy Tucker) and lighting (T. J. Gerckens) had character. Language plays a major role in the shedding and rebuilding of Eurydice’s identity, and Tucker’s projections went beyond their utilitarian function as subtitles. They become part of the atmosphere of the afterlife.
Daniel Ostling’s set also balances the opera’s gravitas and goofiness. I’ve never seen a more harrowing vision of the underworld, even when presided over by a paper moon that looks on loan from a school play.
At all turns, director Mary Zimmerman’s staging (carried over and upgraded from the opera’s original production by L.A. Opera) seems concerned with foregrounding the humanity of Eurydice’s sojourn into death, while periodically puncturing its surface to let some air out.
Listening to the audience around me gradually gather their bearings in Ruhl’s world and allow themselves to laugh at its captivating strangeness felt like a music of its own.
In the same way that “Eurydice” the play challenged our ideas of what we make of the myths we’ve inherited, “Eurydice” the opera seems to challenge the mythic legacy of opera itself, asking us to listen from two worlds at once.
But rather than compelling us to look back, “Eurydice” gives us much to look forward to.