The story of Orpheus and Eurydice fits nicely into the most conventional plot line of all: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back. But modern feminism has questioned the figure of Eurydice for many years. What does her journey into the underworld mean? Is her disappearance a concealed revolt against conventional gender relations? Can she forge any destiny for herself other than as the loving mate of her husband?
All questions are finally answered in the phantasmagorical Eurydice which had its world premiere at the LA Opera last week. Here we finally have a reimagining of the ancient myth for a modern age, bringing the somewhat obscured heroine out of the shadows and into the forefront. It’s based on librettist, Sarah Ruhl’s play of the same name, directed by Tony Award-winner, Mary Zimmerman (The Arabian Nights, Galileo Galilei), and composed and conducted by the impressively 29-year old, Matthew Aucoin (Akhnaten, Rigoletto); And what a triumvirate it is, all three being MacArthur Fellowship recipients.
After an idyllic date on the beach and wedding proposal, Eurydice (Soprano, Danielle de Niese, La Boheme, Giulio Cesare) marries her music-obsessed beloved, Orpheus (Bariton, Joshua Hopkins, The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute). Bored with her own wedding reception and grief-stricken over the absence of her deceased father, she wanders off on her own. The androgynous devil, Hades (Tenor, Barry Banks, Roberto Devereux) in a show-stealing, grimly Harvey Weinsteinesque role, lures her to his fancy apartment with the bait of a letter from her deceased father (Baritone, Rod Gilfry), thereby sealing her fate. Eurydice tumbles down his stairway, passes a river of forgetfulness, and arrives in the dark underworld devoid of light, language, and memory; the only upside is that she’s reunited with her adoring and miraculously coherent father who does his best to restore her faculties, make her feel safe, and save her from the merciful erasures of death — a task assigned to the rules-obsessed, stunningly costumed trio called the Chorus of Stones (Stacey Tappan, Raehann Bryce-Davis, and Kevin Ray).
Pain, once again, becomes the catalyst for great art. The devastated Orpheus becomes the power-balladeer of his age, perhaps, as Hades later implies, even relishing his pain a tad bit much. Demigod that he is, Orpheus resolves to reclaim his wife from death and Hades, who is planning on making her his bride, and takes the metaphoric elevator ride down into the underworld. His poignant music makes all hearts melt — even the Chorus of Stones pelt out pebbles of tears in a particularly humorous moment — and is permitted to take her back to the sunny abode, but warned that he must not gaze upon her before the journey is completed or she will die a second time.
Is it insecurity, excitement, or in fact, a reluctance to rejoin the living that makes Eurydice call out Orpheus’s name and make him gaze upon her, thus sabotaging everything? Could it be that she loves him more as a playmate than a lover? Or that in her heart, she always knew that music was his first love, and that her death has made him a resplendent artist? Perhaps the unfeeling Chorus of Stones know best when they remark, “When you think about it, wasn’t Orpheus, wrapped in his art, always a kind of stranger to this thoughtful woman?”
Orpheus’s melodies may be poignant, but Aucoin’s music is boldly devoid of any sentimentality. It’s forbidding, surreal, magnetizing. He says, “I would say that my music is explosively tonal and by that, I mean it uses tonal harmonies but perhaps not in familiar ways. There’s an instability or an explosiveness to the way the harmonies behave.” This surreal mood is enhanced and sometimes reminiscent of Tarsem Singh’s 2000 science-fiction horror epic, The Cell, thanks by the sets by Daniel Ostling, and costumes by Ana Kuzmanic.
— Ghalib Dhalla / Victor Riobo
Eurydice is playing through February 23rd at LA Opera. Tickets HERE.