Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Eurydice
Backed by Mary Zimmerman’s Finest Met Work, Sarah Ruhl & Matthew Aucoin’s Absurdist Deconstruction of the Classic Myth ShinesBy David Salazar
(Credit: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
Let’s cut to the chase.
The Orpheus story is one of the most famous in all of Greek mythology. A musician loses his wife, creates glorious music that moves the gods, and gets a chance to win her back. In the world of opera, this particular story has unsurprisingly been the inspiration for many a masterpiece starting with Monteverdi’s early example (the earliest opera in history that remains in performance) and most prominently with Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice.”
There have been some subversive looks at the myth in the operatic world, with Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” the most prominent, but usually, these versions continue the tried and true method of exploring the myth from the perspective of the musical hero.
Sarah Ruhl and Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” aims to break down this Orphean monopoly on the story and explore it from the opposing viewpoint of his dead wife. And in doing so, the work asks questions about what Eurydice actually wants out of her life and afterlife.
“Eurydice’s” unique qualities came to the fore in its Metropolitan Opera debut on Nov. 23, 2021, marking the second 21st century opera to hit the company’s cavernous stage during the 2021-22 season (the first being the masterful “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”).
Deconstructing a Myth
The opera’s plot starts off simple enough. Orpheus and Eurydice on the beach. He proposes to her. They get married. But she’s not particularly happy at her wedding party so she rushes off to get some water, running into Hades himself, who tricks her into following him to the underworld. There, she’s met by a trio of stones and her long-dead father. They rekindle their relationship and suddenly Eurydice finds herself feeling at home in hell.
Meanwhile, Orpheus runs after her, conjures up some musical magic in a dead language (he chooses Latin) and then manages to broker the famous deal with Hades – lead Eurydice out of hell and never look back.
Orpheus unfortunately does look back in most versions of the myth, a decision brilliantly discussed in Céline Sciamma’s cinematic masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Many have concluded that his choice comes from a fear that she was no longer there. Ruhl and Aucoin opt for a different solution – Eurydice calls out to Orpheus and in doing this, SHE decides to return to the underworld because that’s where she feels happiest.
But this work, being a notable example of absurdist theater (a bit more on that in a bit), opts for a hyper tragic conclusion in which Eurydice’s father throws himself in the river, losing all his memories. Eurydice, realizing her mistake, does the same thing. And Orpheus, unable to live without Eurydice, presumably commits suicide so he can go to the underworld to be with her, only to find out that she will never remember a thing about their lives.
It’s a lot to take in and the opera itself undeniably is as well.
As a work of absurdist theater, Ruhl’s libretto doesn’t back away from being confrontational with its audience on many fronts. The most immediate confrontation is the choice of language and its simplicity right off the bat. Instead of flowery and poetic discourse, as one might expect from a baroque opera or a work of romanticism, we are greeted with three-word sentences with some “Wows” and “huhs” thrown in. It’s jarring to be sure and takes some time to get used to. But, based on the explosions of laughter throughout, this unpretentiousness also makes the work accessible.
But this initial absence of verbal personality also expresses Eurydice’s own feeling of emptiness. When Orpheus starts singing, his language is more developed and nuanced, expressing a stronger sense of self; they couldn’t be more different and from the get-go, one can get the sense that the story is looking to question the nature of their relationship. His marriage proposal is not the stuff of legends, but awkward, and she responds by saying “yes… I think.” Their wedding vows are equally discomfiting and centered around a book reading itself that comes off as pretentious and vapid, which seems to be exactly the point. These people have no idea how to communicate with one another and when Eurydice asks Orpheus what he is thinking about (moments after his proposal and her affirmation), he says, “Music.”
It’s only when she gets to the underworld that Eurydice’s own vocal discourse starts to flourish. Most prominently she gets an aria about what it is to love an artist in which she mulls the loneliness that comes from being with someone who is always elsewhere, the core of the story.
But Ruhl also toys with other dramatic motifs, most notably in her use of a “stone chorus” that provides the ultimate comic relief throughout the work. The Greek chorus is an indelible fixture in Greek drama, which adds to the humor of seemingly expressionless stones (their hysterics throughout make them the most decidedly expressive lot of the entire opera) taking the mantle of the famed commentators.
This opera, like “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” feels like two works/stories in one. The first half plays up its comic absurdity to the extreme in most cases, while the second half, which still retains much of that quality, coalesces into a potent Greek tragedy.
Strong Musical Storytelling
Aucoin’s music matches up quite well with what is going on onstage. The opening of the opera features dissonant, wave-like phrases that express the water from the beach where we find the two lovers (water as a destructive force is a common motif throughout). The emotional repetition and stagnant nature of this section is an apt way to express Eurydice and Orpheus’ problematic relationship. Emotionally, you find yourself as disconnected from them as they do from themselves.
Juxtapose that emotional dryness with what comes next – a haunting, brooding (dare I say Wagnerian?) bass melody as we descend to the underworld to see Eurydice’s father send her a letter on her wedding day.
Act three’s dramatic incisiveness is well-matched musically with perhaps the highlight coming from the ascent between Orpheus and Eurydice, a growing, tense crescendo throughout the ensemble. Finally, the ending features an aria by Eurydice that matches up structurally and even musically with her Act two aria “This is what it is to love an artist.” Where that one seems to ponder about her feelings toward Orpheus, this one is far more expressive and seems to confirm Eurydice’s feelings for her husband; it’s a subtle but expressive musical character arc. When Orpheus shows up at the end, the orchestra goes into full-on rhythmic and harmonic dissonance, ending abruptly to match the opera’s own crazed “triple death.”
Aucoin matches Ruhl’s witticism quite well throughout, particularly with the danse macabre and its dark heavy bass at the wedding (probably the finest example of Aucoin’s sardonic bite) and, especially with the character of Hades. The menacing ruler of the underworld gets bouncy percussive rhythms that automatically make him stand apart from the rest of the musical language (in one fine moment, he turns on some swing to try and seduce Eurydice).
The one area where Aucoin doesn’t always strike gold is with the vocal writing. Whereas Hades’ distinctive high tenor line perfectly manages to be both comic and irritating (in a great narrative sense) and the three stones get to toy with known operatic convention (one of them is an extreme high voice and the other low), the rest of the characters don’t always get the same level of clarity. Orpheus’ voice gets double with a countertenor line, which delineates his nature as both human and musical genius, but we don’t really ever get a true sense of his musical genius otherwise in the rest of his musical moments. Save for a baroque-like passage to kick off the second half of the show, his lines aren’t all that unique from Eurydice’s or her father’s or even at times, the stones themselves.
Those in search of more traditional melodies will likely come away disappointed in this regard. But it doesn’t take away from the overall sense of atmosphere that Aucoin manages with his score, which often makes the experience feel like a play with incidental music.
Leading the Music & Dramatic Charge
The fact that all of this musical language was clear and dissectible comes in no small part to the strong work of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. If there is one defining characteristic of the conductor, it is that the orchestra always sounds good on his watch. You never hear imbalance or insecurity from the ensemble when the baton is in his hands. The musicians play as one. But he also has the propensity of overindulging in his interpretations which in more traditional repertory can come off as heavy-handed and mannered (see his Met “Traviata”), almost as if he were trying to overthink a score with the intention of making it “new” again (often resulting in disjointed interpretations). But with more modern music and the in-person aid of the original composers, Nézet-Séguin seems to reign in his outsized musical personality. And the result was an evening where Aucoin’s dense and complex musical storytelling was pronounced and direct. Throw in the balance he managed with the singers (a tough one I might add given the dimensions of the set and its acoustic hollowness) and this was a very successful performance for the French-Canadian maestro.
And he topped it all off with a fine gesture of inviting all of the orchestra musicians onstage to also earn their well-earned applause. It was a reminder that, more than any of the singers onstage, the orchestra carries the performance on its shoulders the entire night. The gesture was especially warranted after the year-and-a-half-long debacle in which these very musicians, fighting for their livelihoods and futures, were made to feel like the most inessential part of the organization.
Speaking of musicians, let’s talk about the solid cast.
Leading the pack was Erin Morley who was undeniably having a blast in the leading role. We get a rather empty vessel of a character early on (again, Morley didn’t really have much to work with except rather basic sentences and some fun comic moments), but as the story developed, there was definitely a clear deepening in her characterization and the vulnerability she brought to the role. This was particularly notable in her two arias in the first part and second part of the opera. In both, she delivered with fluid and elegant legato lines, interspersed with some potent high notes that made their appearance throughout. When listening to Morley, there’s always this sense of musical and vocal security that was undeniably present here throughout. Perhaps there were notable moments where her lower range and more parlato phrasing was inaudible, but that seemed more a feature of the production itself (more on this later).
As her lover Orpheus, Joshua Hopkins possessed a vibrant and imposing sound that rang clearly throughout the evening. His rather potent vocalism contrasted nicely with Morley’s more subdued approach early on, emphasizing the distance between the two. This vocal fullness would also express itself in more heroic gestures, particularly when Orpheus promises to rush off and save Eurydice from hell at the close of Act two. In moments where Orpheus expressed his pain, Hopkins’ voice was more relaxed and gentle, notably in the scene where he sings in Latin before the gates of Hades.
Complementing Hopkins was countertenor Jakub Józef Orlinski in his Met Opera debut. Orlinski’s vocal lines always dovetail with Hopkins which did not provide an opportunity to actually hear what the countertenor had to offer on his own; it didn’t help that of all the singers to be snuffed out by the production’s questionable acoustics, his voice was most affected. Yet, when he ascended into his upper range, his voice rang through clearly. He did have a standout physical moment when he did a midair flip at the close of the opera’s opening scene as Orpheus and Eurydice ran off to the water. He also did a solid job of mimicking Hopkins movements in their scenes together. And he also showed off his dance moves during the wedding party scene. Hopefully the countertenor gets an opportunity to put his vocal talents on display with greater prominence in a future Met production.
Nathan Berg made a solid debut as Eurydice’s father, his rustic sound a nice contrast to Morley’s delicate soprano. He gets two major monologues in the piece – the opening letter he sends to Eurydice and his final “aria” before heading to the river. In each, he goes off on tangents about random information that avoids the heart of the matter – his pain at losing Eurydice. While the text itself makes both scenes ironic, Berg’s dark and gruff sound grounded the music and character in the moment, providing a true sense of heartbreak. Of all the performances, he was the one to never truly indulge in any of the comic hijinks and this contrast really made the tenderness in his relationship to Eurydice to come off as sincere. This in effect allowed the audience to more clearly see why Eurydice would make the choice she does at the end.
In the roles of the three stones, Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, and Chad Shelton were a lot of fun to watch. While the rest of the cast seemed to remain rather constrained with their vocal mannerisms, this trio indulged in them to hilarious effect. Whether it be exaggerated loudness (as the Loud Stone makes his first vocal appearance) or with over-exuberant coloratura runs from Little Stone, this trio was always stealing the scenes every time they showed up.
And then there’s the performance of Barry Banks as Hades. From start to finish, Banks’ rat-like Hades was a scene stealer. It helps that Aucoin’s music best defines his character and that Banks fully embraced the overindulgence of high notes to great comic and dramatic effect. He relished each one of these moments and his biting diction added snake-like qualities to his singing. He also dominated the physical aspect of the character, creeping about in his initial “seduction” of Eurydice and eventually clambering about confidently (as ridiculous as that might sound) on stilts in his final appearances. But what made this characterization work was that he not only made the character imposing, but quite pathetic in his cartoony nature as well. We could take him serious as a villain while also mocking and laughing at his larger-than-life personality. It was all good fun.
Now let’s talk about Mary Zimmerman’s production. Zimmerman’s career at the Met has been a roller coaster of sorts. She kicked things off in style with a solid “Lucia” production (which is being replaced this year) before things went a bit off the rails with a sloppy deconstructionist “Sonnambula” production. From there, she moved on to a rather anonymous “Armida” production before rekindling some of her initial “Lucia” magic with a fine “Rusalka.”
But I think that this “Eurydice” might be her best work on the hallowed stage.
The opening curtain is a traditional painting of nature, suggesting a more traditional take on the opera. But once it is lifted, the audience greeted to anything but that. A barren blue stage with a massive curtain in the distance and a few beach chairs on stage left. Those elements will transform throughout with the curtain turning into a wedding tent, a large square coming down to create the underworld, and a telephone booth-esque structure coming down on stage left to depict a number of major dramatic moments (Eurydice’s father’s first letter, the final shower(s)).
The set design by Daniel Ostling is fantastic in and of itself and manages to transition seamlessly from one scene to the other in a rhythmic flow more akin to watching a film than the more traditional static nature of most operas. One particular moment that really registered was Orpheus and Eurydice’s escape from the underworld. As they moved from stage left to right, the stone walls rose up slowly, expressing their escape, but the moment Orpheus turned around, the walls came back down.
The use of water as a consistent motif throughout the work was also poignantly expressed. Whether it be the use of the curtain early on as a prominent feature in the opening scene to express the sea, or the water cooler (which is brought onstage by Hades himself as a trap for Eurydice) or the cold shower at the end meant to symbolize the river of forgetfulness, Zimmerman managed to balance the absurd and subversive nature of water as a symbol of death and destruction.
As aforementioned on several occasions, if there was one shortcoming of this rather open staging choice was that it seemed to suck up a lot of the singers’ sounds; they were particularly hard to hear when the stage was opened up the most.
Zimmerman’s direction of the actors was spot-on throughout and she showed a deft hand at comic timing. The dance sequence during the wedding, choreographed by Denis Jones, used modern dance moves which already created a lot of cognitive dissonance not only with the mythic origins of the story but even more so Aucoin’s creepy danse macabre. That moment was akin to nails scraping on chalkboard, which was both uncomfortable and hilarious, all at once. I think that might be the feeling at many junctures throughout the work, in the best possible way.
There was also some adept Mickey-Mousing (having movements match the music precisely as was often the custom during the silent movie era) when Eurydice ascends to Hades’ chambers.
And then there’s Hades’ outlandish styling. Always in a bright green robe, there was constant visual evolution of the character. He appears first as a normal dude, but later iterations present him with horns, and finally, in his final appearance, on stilts. Another inspired choice by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic is the increased dirtying of Eurydice’s white wedding dress; it seems to symbolize her increased comfort with the dark underworld and how she slowly becomes part of it.
The lighting design by T.J. Gerckens is another major winner. Washing the stage with light in the earlier sections of the opera, Gerckens strikes a moody feel with harsher shadows when we get to the underworld and whenever Hades takes the stage, a red tint dominates the stage. I turn back to the ascent from the underworld as the most inspired visual touchstone in this regard, with the lighting brightening as the two lovers exit the underworld, only for the darkness to settle back in as the walls come crashing down on the doomed lovers.
One Notable Shortcoming
The one aspect of the production that didn’t always work was the one that was probably most important – the use of text projected on the set itself. Going to the opera at the Met is defined in many ways by the small screens in front of every seat. Unless you are a polyglot familiar with all the operas and their distinctive use of language (or you just want to listen to the music and could care less for what is said), you are going to depend on those little screens to get through the evening. So it is always an inspired decision to project the English subtitles right on the stage. It avoids the constant shifting of the eyes up and down from the screen to stage and also gives the director more control over where they want the viewer to be looking. For example, if I want people focused on stage left because that is where the actors are, then you put the text right around there as well this was Zimmerman and projection designer S. Katy Tucker’s modus operandi, for the most part. As an added bonus, each character had his or her own specific font to avoid confusion over who is singing what. Hades’ text is always green, the Stones always get capitalized bubble letters, and everyone else is given more neutral fonts.
And it mostly works. At some points, like when the word Eurydice slowly fades out as her father showers in the river of forgetfulness, it even had a potent dramatic effect. But at other moments, especially with a lot of textual overlap, it could get confusing and sloppy. Whenever someone was writing a letter (the opera has three such well-structured sequences at the beginning, middle, and very end), not only was the font illegible, but its cross fading and overlapping made it almost impossible to read, which made it superfluous and distracting.
And finally, the elephant in the room, which is ALWAYS an issue that this kind of production choice always faces – how to ensure that everyone in a 4,000-seat auditorium can read it. Unfortunately, sitting in orchestra seats, it was impossible to make out certain text due to the phone booth structure on stage left. I can’t imagine how people seated on the right side of the auditorium must have felt in trying to look around that object to read the text, not to mention those at the upper extremes of the theater. I can imagine many of those people might have just gone back to what Zimmerman and co. wanted to avoid – the tiny screens in front of the seats.
It was the right choice to be sure and the creative execution was spot-on, but it didn’t always work as intended.
Ultimately, this is a fine opera and a solid addition to the Met’s collection of new works.
However, whenever I see a new work, a big question looms – with only a handful of performances left, is this a work going to be added to the collection of one-time productions or will the Met make this a staple of its repertory for years to come. As with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” this is a more important decision that most realize.
In a recent interview with the NY Times, Nézet-Séguin talked a lot about the importance of putting modern works at the forefront of his agenda. It’s a great statement to make and it is essential to continue championing new operas, but it can’t just be that. The world looks to the Met for leadership, and while it’s great to talk about putting on new operas, it’s another to curate the standard repertory with them in the mix. As in, it’s not enough to just show an opera once, claim the credit, and move on (look at the Met Opera’s history of new works in recent years and you will see how often it’s a one-and-done routine). And one revival doesn’t cut it either. These operas needs time for audiences to develop relationships with them. Finding that balance between ushering in new works, performing and reinterpreting classics, all while keeping other new works in the mix is the ultimate challenge that this company, especially under this administration and leadership, hasn’t always gracefully managed.
What makes this more pertinent with works such as “Eurydice” and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is that both works are quite important to the modern milieu. One for its aspects of representation and the other as a fine, but rare, modern comedy that also highlights the female perspective of a historic myth. Let’s see how the Met Opera plays its cards.
In the meantime, everyone should go check out “Eurydice.” Not only is it an important work, but it’s a fun time in the weirdest of ways.