Eclectic And Inventive ‘Eurydice’ Whisks Met To, Well, A New Place

Erin Morley in the title role in Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl’s ‘Eurydice’ at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photos by Marty Sohn/Met Opera)

NEW YORK — Everyone knows the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the quintessential boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl story. When Eurydice died on their wedding day, the grieving Orpheus followed her to the Underworld to bring her back from the dead. Disarmed by the beauty of his song, Hades allowed him to lead his wife out of Hell, provided he not look back at her. But Orpheus looked — and Eurydice was lost to him forever.

Most versions of this tale have focused on Orpheus, the musical genius, and his brave descent to the Underworld on an impossible mission. Playwright Sarah Ruhl was more interested in the woman who inspired such heroism, imagining her as more than a passive object of rescue. For her 2003 play, Eurydice, she imagined a plucky young woman who loved words the way her husband loved music, and who missed her father, who had died. When fate sent Eurydice to Hell, she encountered her father, who helped her regain language and memory, and she was reluctant to leave when offered the chance to return to life and to a man who didn’t quite understand her. In Eurydice, the father-daughter relationship is more important than that of the young couple. Orpheus, for his part, is less genuinely connected with his bride than with music.

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus’ Double and Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus in ‘Eurydice.’

Matthew Aucoin’s opera, a co-commission with the Los Angeles Opera, where Eurydice had its world premiere in February 2020 before opening at the Metropolitan Opera on Nov. 23, is a largely faithful setting of Ruhl’s play (she wrote the libretto). Orpheus and Eurydice are a very young couple who marry in spite of questionable compatibility (she reads King Lear at the beach, his attention frequently drifts when he hears music, here personified by a singing double). At the wedding, Eurydice is induced to leave the party when a Nasty Interesting Man improbably lures her with a letter from her dead father. She follows him to his penthouse, leaves to avoid his advances, and falls down a staircase and dies. Arriving in the Underworld, she encounters her father — whom she first mistakes for a porter — who helps her regain language and memory. The grieving Orpheus sends her a letter and then braves death to find her.

As in the original myth, Orpheus’ music so charms Hades that the singer is permitted to lead his wife back to life, under conditions. As in the original version, it doesn’t go well. Back in Hell, the Father and then Eurydice bathe in the River of Forgetfulness, so that by the time Orpheus arrives in the Underworld once more, and this time for good, Eurydice is forever lost to him.

In her fifth production at the Met, director Mary Zimmerman is on familiar ground: She has directed a number of classical texts, including her 2002 Tony-winning Broadway production of Metamorphoses, based on Ovid. For Eurydice, she plays with the contrasts between the worlds of the living and the dead with light and space, alternating between the empty, brightly sunlit earth and a dark, miserable, and claustrophobic Hell (outside of the perpetual party that surrounds Hades). She employs surrealistic elements to explore the porosity of the boundaries between the two, as letters magically travel between the two realms, and the newly dead descend to the netherworld via elevator.

Barry Banks as Hades.

Texts projected onto the backdrop helpfully delineate the different groups of characters (the living, the dead, the infernals) with varied typefaces, even suggesting the acts of remembering and forgetting with fading letters. (Sets are by Daniel Ostling, lighting by T.J. Gerckens, and projections by S. Katy Tucker.) These on-set captions were especially useful when the singers were drowned out at musical climaxes. Costumes were clear and clever: Ana Kuzmanic dressed the mortals in unremarkable street clothing, with ’50s party frocks for the wedding guests. Costumes also evolved to reflect the characters’ transformation.

For the wedding scene, Eurydice wore white; her dress became gradually covered with grime as she became more and more entrenched in the land of the dead. The Interesting Man, a.k.a Hades, morphed from a short Lothario with a combover into a towering devil, with horns and a long corkscrew tail sticking out of his long coat. The infernals were a fanciful lineup of silent actors; viewers who remember their Edith Hamilton could recognize characters like Cerberus and Sisyphus. The gray trio of singing Stones were a sassy Greek chorus, seemingly plucked from Alice in Wonderland or perhaps The Ghosts of Versailles.

Aucoin’s score reflects recognizable influences, but it is unlike anything I have ever heard at the Met. Some of the orchestral writing recalls Thomas Adès, with its vivid, inventive sonorities (the six percussionists stayed very busy) and post-modern harmonic language, while passages of driving minimalism evoke John Adams. In the livelier scenes, snippets of styles, from Baroque to bossa nova, adjusted mood as action ricocheted between tragic and comic. Wordless choral interjections boosted the orchestra’s invocations of suffering.

Nathan Berg as Father and Erin Morley as Eurydice.

The vocal writing alternates between snappy sung dialogue that advances the action, fitting Ruhl’s casual language, and a jaunty style that wouldn’t be out of place on Broadway. But too often the orchestral accompaniment swelled to overwhelm the voices, especially when vocal lines sat low. More lyrical writing gave each of the principals a proper chance to shine. Eurydice has several arias that showed off Erin Morley’s soaring upper register. The wedding trio of Eurydice, Orpheus, and Orpheus’ Double is ravishingly beautiful, and the lover’s song to win his bride showed the Orphic duo at their best.

Morley was superb as Eurydice, her apparently effortless girlish sound portraying a thoughtful and complex, if not always likable, character. Her Orpheus, the emerging baritone Joshua Hopkins, had a believably boyish charm and swagger. His smooth voice meshed beautifully with Jakub Józef Orliński’s (Orpheus’ Double) soft-grained countertenor, the two entwining like vines. Orlinski, the embodiment of Orpheus’ connection with music, was handsome, seductive, and heedless, distracting the young man from his lover but frequently disappearing when the going got rough.

Stacey Tappan as Little Stone, Erin Morley as Eurydice, Ronnita Miller as Big Stone, and Chad Shelton as Loud Stone in ‘Eurydice.’

For all the fresh visual and musical appeal, there was an awkwardness to the very literary father-daughter relationship, which is the emotional core of the work, making Orpheus somewhat peripheral. On arrival in Hell, Eurydice showed herself to be something of a spoiled brat, ordering her father around like a servant. Much of the second act was very long and talky, fine for a play but frustrating in a music drama. That said, the Father’s final aria and recitation in the third act, when he surrenders to forgetfulness, was one of the most moving moments of the evening.

In the end, the essential drama still belonged to Eurydice and Orpheus. It didn’t matter that the audience knew from the start how it would end: When Eurydice impulsively called out to Orpheus and he turned, the audience collectively gasped.

Tenor Barry Banks gave a scene-stealing performance as Hades, lord of the Underworld, full of cruel wit. Imperious in manner and penetrating of voice, Banks was the perfect psychopath, with, not incidentally, the evening’s best diction. The hilarious trio of Stones (Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, and Chad Shelton) provided lively counterpoint to both the grieving mortals and the implacable laws of Hell. As the father, Nathan Berg provided the emotional anchor of the piece, and, it must be said, the most audible vocal performance of the principals.

Erin Morley as Eurydice, Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus, and Jakub Jozef Orlinski as Orpheus’ Double in ‘Eurydice.”

Apart from too often allowing the singers to be covered, Met music director Yannick Nézét-Séguin led an energetic and nuanced performance of the challenging score. At curtain call, he acknowledged the orchestra by bringing the players onstage, a gesture rarely seen outside of Wagner evenings.

For all its frustrations, Eurydice is an appealing and compelling new addition to a company that has for too long shied away from presenting new work. The production continues through Dec. 16, with John Holiday performing Orpheus’ Double, the role he originated at the LA world premiere, in the final two performances. For tickets, go here.