Myth Remade As Opera: Eurydice Rules The Tale, Leaves Orpheus For Dad

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Eurydice Sydney Mancasola arrives in the Underworld in the Boston Lyric Opera production of Matthew Aucoins Eurydice Photos by Nile Scott Studios

BOSTON — Note the title. Eurydice, Sarah Ruhl’s 2003 play, shifts agency to a different protagonist in the enduring myth. It’s a bride-and-father tale, and its core relationship involves a questioning daughter seeking her dead dad. It’s not the husband-and-wife legend of returning from hell—only in part. It’s Eurydice’s story.

Composer Matthew Aucoin teamed with Ruhl for the operatic adaptation of her successful play; their Eurydice premiered in its grander version at Los Angeles Opera in 2020 and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York a year later. Aucoin pared this score to a chamber setting for the more modest Boston Lyric Opera staging that opened March 1 at the Huntington Theatre, with 17 instrumentalists instead of 70 and a small ensemble of offstage voices replacing the chorus.

Ruhl’s Eurydice, sung and acted intuitively by lyric soprano Sydney Mancasola, dies on her wedding day and joins her Father, the equally well-cast bass-baritone Mark S. Doss, in Hades. She needed to talk to him anyway, with the whole marriage whirlwind going on, you know.

Her marriage seems whimsical: An opening beach scene, with the young lovers flirty and dreamy, turns swiftly into a happy-go-lucky wedding reception. When Eurydice wonders what might have been, she yearns for her dad’s advice. Dying is a way to get it.

Father Mark S Doss encourages Eurydice Sydney Mancasola to make the journey back to the living world

When they meet in Hades, Eurydice, freshly bathed in the waters of forgetfulness, cannot understand language. Father helps her make sense of the incomprehensible (he spells out her name, “E, for elephants,” in an evocative aria).

Eurydice is central to almost every important scene, and Mancasola sang with facile power and dramatic force. Having soprano and baritone in lead roles — mirrored by Orpheus (baritone Elliot Madore, typecast as a surfer nerd and paired with his countertenor double, the superb Nicholas Kelliher) —creates balances of sound and characterization.

Thanks to her Father, Eurydice does relearn language. But in the presence of her Father, she mostly infantilizes herself (she hopscotches at one point), acting much like a homeward-bound collegian with a pile of laundry.

When Orpheus descends to return her to the living, she’s at first profoundly skeptical and then casually sabotages the myth’s don’t-look-back playbook. No worries; she dies a second time admitting, “I decided to come back.”

Hades is an “opposite-day” place anyway. Three Stones (soprano Maggie Finnegan, mezzo-soprano Alexis Peart, and tenor Neal Ferreira, ludicrously costumed, singing buoyantly or weeping hilariously when Orpheus sings) guard against any human emotion in hell. It’s a kind of anti-empathy, tenderly displayed. Even remembering names is too strong a pull for the Stones to abide.

Orpheus Elliot Madore front and his Double Nicholas Kelliher enter the Underworld in search of his wife

Tenor David Portillo was Hades, conjuring a lusciously vile sound; he was costumed unappealingly with rolls of fat and a string bikini. Director Douglas Fitch also supervised sets and wardrobe. The outfits were Cali-cool, and the simple set — a tall obstructing wall that separated into stairs — unobtrusively portrayed spaces for the living and for the dead. A cold moon hung over the action.

The characterful score was a marvel, replete with energy. Vocal parts sat easily in the singers’ ranges, and high/low contrasts (Eurydice/Father, Orpheus/Double) were frequently explored. Madore’s “Open the gates” duet with Kelliher, a melismatic masterpiece, created sonorities of baritone and countertenor that gave the outrageous demand some genuine plausibility.

Music for scenes ranging from wedding parties to confrontations with death stole from numerous styles, evoking minimalist riffs, rockin’ out, cheesy pick-up tunes, and richly woven harmonic language, slipping in shifty rhythms that imitated the often unsettling action. The composer/conductor no doubt lamented the loss of the large string sections from the grand version of the opera, but the constant presence of exposed winds and horns sounded fine in this theater.

Orpheus’ devotion to music creates blindness. “Don’t you think you’re enjoying your grief a little too much?” Hades asks him mockingly. It’s magical that Orpheus sings open the gates of hell; it’s also a mistake: hubristic, a mockery of an unchangeable tragedy.

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” T.S. Eliot wrote. This Eurydice would certainly agree. And it’s her story.

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Keith Powers
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for Leonore Overture, Classical Voice North America, Chamber Music America, and Opera News. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.