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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Review: “Eurydice” from the Met Opera tries to resurrect the dead

How does it sound when you’re dead?

“Strange high-pitched sounds are heard,” the hero of Sarah Rule’s play “Eurydice” writes to his daughter, who is still in the land of the living, “a boiling kettle as always.”

Slippery, chilling tones, as if you heard sour milk being poured, this is our first visit to the underworld at Ruhl and an intense, tedious adaptation of a 2003 play by composer Matthew Aucoin, which premiered Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera.

Ruhl and Aucoin’s desire to offer a modern vision of the history of Orpheus and his attempt to save his wife from oblivion echoes the very origins of this art form. Eurydice by Jacopo Peri from 1600 is the earliest surviving opera, and Claudio Monteverdi’s Orpheus, written a few years later, is the earliest opera to be performed regularly. Orpheus’ operas clutter up the next four centuries; The magnificent 1647 version of Luigi Rossi was rarely produced at the Juilliard School earlier this month.

Unsurprisingly, the tale of the greatest musician in history, the man who made stones cry during his performance, continues to attract his descendants. The script offers composers a wedding party, a tragic death, a memory of what is beyond it, an attempt at resurrection, a piercing cry – an opportunity to shine and become part of a great tradition.

Aukoin, 31, is not shy about taking on this pedigree. His appreciation is massive and assertive, but agile; he continues to move, infinitely eclectic but united by muscular tempo control, and with tireless energy played the Met Orchestra under the direction of the company’s music director Yannick Nezet-Séguin.

Aucoin’s music itself is luxurious, but it never tires us for a long time, it always rushes to the next, another matter – as if, despite all its magnificence, he was afraid of losing our attention. John Adams is deeply concerned about the manuscript with softly sparkling bells; a bossa nova style riff, with batteries of raucous percussion.

The dances at the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice, a hint of pop music shining through sinister shadows, is a little gem. Hades, the god of the underworld who tempts her to ruin, is a blatant high tenor (here Barry Banks savoring the extreme).

Orpheus (baritone Joshua Hopkins) has a double (countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski, in his Met debut). Down in Hell, the recently deceased are watched by a trio of these weeping stones (Ronnita Miller, Chad Shelton and Stacy Tappan, all alive). Unlike most Orpheus operas, the main aria here belongs to Eurydice (soprano Erin Morley), who tenderly mourns the pain of love for the artist: “There is always something more beautiful in his head.” Towards the end, the outpouring of Puccinian warmth gives way to an even sharper blow, then fanfarm stylization of the Handelian baroque before the gloomy and quiet conclusion of the work. A choir sings offstage.

It’s all a lot; it may seem too big. Straightforward yet poetic, Ruhl’s play is one in which the scene is about Eurydice’s father creating a thread room for her – the most heartbreakingly delicate act you can imagine. But Aucoin lends the orchestral accompaniment of Wagnerian grandeur to this sequence, reaching a climax as if his father had just built Valhalla.

And shortly before this passage, there is an equally harsh instrumental interlude with the staggering intensity of something from Berg’s Wozzeck. Later, when Orpheus emerges from the underworld – he is ordered to sigh not to look back at his wife, who follows him – the cacophony of drums and wind instruments makes this moment less dramatic than just mockery.

The opera, of course, feeds on too much verbosity, and the myth of Orpheus is life and death nonsense, worthy of big, playful music. But given Ruhl’s charming attitude, the result is a sense that Aucoin’s music fills the story, rather than guides or directs it. You are gripping the plot, but you feel too overwhelmed to feel.

Overdosage was also an issue in Aucoin’s latest opera, the bombastic Crossroads (2015), about Walt Whitman during the Civil War. He wrote this libretto; Thanks to Ruhl’s clarity, Eurydice, first heard in February 2020 at the Los Angeles Opera, is a clearer and more powerful piece. Her play, written a few years after her father’s death, added zest by drawing to traditional myth the story of a parent and child grieving over distance.

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This structure pays much more attention than usual to Eurydice, the connection of these romantic and familial threads. But in the Met, a hazy void is at the center of the piece: Morley, in a role that dominates music and action, has a balanced and precise voice – and so subtle that it is almost inaudible throughout most of the opera. … (Aucoin’s dense appreciation does not help, but it is difficult to hear, even in transparent moments.) There are artists with small instruments who nevertheless penetrate the vast Met; Morley’s only plays the highest notes.

As a result, we never feel sufficiently dependent on her; it is a reminder that the emotional impact of operatic characters is manifested in the vocal presence of singers. It is easy to love this Eurydice, her pleasant but unsentimental presence, but difficult to care for her as much as necessary. Her love for Orpheus, her confession of her father (the sober baritone Nathan Berg), her fear and her growing up – we know all this is happening, but in reality none of them come to life.

Aucoin and Ruhl have added some unnecessary sympathy to a piece already leaning towards a tweet. At the gates of hell, stones tell Orpheus not to sing there “unless you sing in a dead language” – so Hopkins and Orlinski properly begin to intonate Latin, parodying medieval simple choreography.

The countertenor doppelgänger seems to be the idea discussed during the brainstorming session. It’s true, the sound of Orlinski’s radiant voice creating a halo around Hopkins’ strong bottom lines can be pretty pretty.

But it’s hard to see what the doppelgänger is doing on stage, especially in Mary Zimmerman’s production, which gives him tiny angel wings but also makes him often appear shirtless and brooding. Is he the trainer of Orpheus? His ID? His creative side? Clever musical effect ultimately clogs up the drama. (Coincidentally, Terence Blanchard and Cassie Lemmons’ film Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened the Metropolitan season, also included a high-pitched baritone understudy, but with more dramatic drama: a boyish soprano representing the protagonist’s youthful face.)

Zimmermann’s soft-fiction production of Eurydice effectively depicts the action – an elevator down to hell; a soul that makes the dead forget about their lives; looming, ragged walls of the underworld – but devoid of magic and splendor. (The rocks, the monumental caked gray creatures, are adorable; Ana Kuzmanich is the costume designer.) One relief: the text is projected during performance on a set by Daniel Ostling, allowing the audience to fully focus on the action.

“Eurydice” is the most touching as a symbol of the changing artistic priorities of the Metropolitan. If you had said just a few years ago that the company’s music director would be conducting two recent American operas – this one and Fire – in two months, no one would have believed you. The pandemic reshuffle made it possible, but Nézé-Séguin said in a recent interview that over the past year and a half, he has managed to maintain that pace and personally direct a couple of contemporary works every season.

The spooky 2017 adaptation of Hamlet by Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelin comes out this spring. On the horizon are premieres of Kevin Poots, Missy Mazzoli, Mason Bates, Jeanine Tesori and others, as well as underrated works of the past few decades such as X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis.

What a time to be on this side of the underworld.


Until December 16 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.

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