Eurydice Revisited: In A Dark Opera, Even Stones Sing

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John Holiday, left, as Orpheus’ spectral double, with Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus. (Photos by Cory Weaver)

LOS ANGELES – In Eurydice, Matthew Aucoin’s new opera, Hades delights in calling himself “lord of the underworld,” and at the premiere Feb. 1 by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he drew the most laughs.

As embodied by the English lyric tenor Barry Banks, dressed like a carnival barker in green plaid pants, Hades also got the biggest jolt of applause at the curtain call.

Barry Banks as Hades

What is it about the devil that sweeps all before him? “I like happy music with a nice beat,” Banks sings in his highest range, suggesting a whiny child used to getting everything he wants. And in his culture-free monochromatic kingdom, where his minions include three singing stones, he does.

Notwithstanding Banks’ Broadway-like turn, Aucoin’s ambitious Eurydice also deals with profound themes of love, memory, and loss. A co-commission and co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera (where it is scheduled to be presented next year), Eurydice feels like two operas in one.

Based on the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the libretto, adapted by Sarah Ruhl from her 2003 play, is by turns surreal, witty, touching, and grim. Relentlessly grim. This is not Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), the earliest surviving opera, in which the power of music is affirmed and the audience revels in the joyous triumph of love over death. Nor does it share the hopefulness of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film adaptation, where the married couple is allowed to leave the underworld and go back to their ordinary lives.

Playwright Ruhl added the character of Eurydice’s father, played here with commanding gravity by baritone Rod Gilfry, so the story could be told from his daughter’s point of view. As Eurydice, soprano Danielle de Niese made her conflict – between returning to life with her husband or joining her father in the underworld – achingly human.

In one of the opera’s most heartbreaking moments, Orpheus and Eurydice trudge out of the land of the dead while T.J. Gerckens’ lighting adds suspense through the simple device of slowly increasing light turning back into descending darkness.

In Ruhl’s libretto, Orpheus breaks his deal with Hades and looks back because Eurydice startles him by shouting his name. Ruhl said during an interview that the idea came from a personal place – the loss of her own father when she was 20. Be that as it may, Eurydice’s act sabotages her chances of life with her new husband.

Danielle de Niese as Eurydice

It’s likely Aucoin found the darker aspects of Ruhl’s retelling of the myth especially attractive, since as another playwright observed, happiness writes white, making little impact on the page or on the audience’s emotions. Witness the long and gratuitous opening scene of Eurydice, in which the mythical couple cavorts happily on a sunny beach.

Moreover, Aucoin is co-artistic director of the progressive American Modern Opera Company, an organization looking to push boundaries. As LA Opera’s first artist-in-residence from 2016 through 2019, the composer, who is also a writer and pianist, honed his conducting skills on several operas, including a semi-staged production of his first major opera, Crossing (2015), in which Gilfry portrayed Walt Whitman.

Conducting the LA Opera Orchestra, Aucoin gave his buoyantly inventive, evocative, and churning score an implacable energy and forward motion. Like John Adams at a similar age, Aucoin, who is 29, has clearly soaked up many styles and genres. Eurydice shows his confidence in using Gregorian chant, Richard Strauss, Glass, Adams, and even radio static. Whether he’s aptly inserting a suggestion of Strauss when the Angel of Death creeps across the stage or going percussive-techno in the couple’s early wedding dance scene, Aucoin’s music more than ever before seemed linked to character and drama.

Kevin Ray (Loud Stone), Raehann Bryce-Davis (Big Stone), and Stacey Tappan (Little Stone)

In his program note, Aucoin writes that he wanted to “musicalize” Orpheus’ “contradictory double nature” as part human and part divine. Here the marvelous countertenor John Holiday acts as Orpheus’ spectral double, singing behind or alongside him.

As Orpheus, Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins convincingly makes the three stones – Little Stone (Stacey Tappan), Big Stone (Raehann Bryce-Davis), and Loud Stone (Kevin Ray) – cry tiny stones. It’s a moment worthy of Cocteau.

Other high points include Denis Jones’ strikingly witty choreography, which includes a wedding party reference to “the Floss,” a wild dance that went viral a few years ago. And costume designer Ana Kuzmanic must have had a good time outfitting Hades and his Three Stones.

Director Mary Zimmerman, making full use of Daniel Ostling’s convincingly monolithic, shadowy underworld set design, created a persuasively claustrophobic tension. Tonally, the opera’s weight falls more heavily on the myth’s dark side by the additional death of Eurydice’s father. But that’s the trade-off in marginalizing Orpheus’ story.

By the way, Hades, reachable by elevator, offers a shower – a kind of portable river Lethe – that Eurydice and her father use to extinguish their memories. It’s a messy, problematic device, not least because several operagoers mentioned being taken out of the drama wondering how far Gilfry might go in stripping down.

At the opera’s conclusion, the audience was quiet, perhaps slightly numb, as if they’d just seen Dido’s final death rattle. Nevertheless, Aucoin’s Eurydice managed to communicate a vital sense of how wonderful it is to be alive.

Eurydice continues at LA Opera through Feb. 23. For tickets and information, go here.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

Eurydice (Danielle de Niese) with her father (Rod Gilfry)