More operas likely have been written, including the one that introduced the art form, about the Orpheus myth than any other subject. Today the Met’s HD series presented Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice set to a libretto by Sarah Ruhl based on her 2004 play of the same name. The story in this version is told from Eurydice’s perspective. Basically she’s a daddy’s girl who’s jealous of her husband’s attention to music. She’d rather be in Hades with her father than return to life with Orpheus. Aucoin on several interviews said his opera was about how people tend to screw things up – hardly the stuff of tragedy.
Of course, none of this would matter if the music was up to snuff, but it was mostly a lot of very brilliantly orchestrated parlando well performed by an excellent cast. The most memorable music occurred in the last act. E’s father, who’s the only soul in Hades who’s regained his memory, decides to dip himself in the river of forgetfulness. He thinks his daughter is leaving him alone in Hades to follow Orpheus – you know the story. Before taking the plunge (actually a shower – see below) he speaks, rather than sings, a set of directions to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River as the music plays. These are apparently recollections of his earthly life.
The river of forgetfulness is a shower in a box that looks like set designer Daniel Ostling found in a 100 year old junkyard. When E returns to daddy after screwing up her return to the surface, she finds him comatose in the shower. She douses herself and slumps to the tiles next to him. Orpheus then arrives already wet from another shower, or maybe the real river, his mind blank and pitiless as the sun. The opera then ends on a dismal blackout.
Erin Morley played the title role. She’s been singing at the Met since 2008. Until 2013 she appeared in comprimario roles. Then she assumed high soprano parts such as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann. Eurydice is written at the top of the soprano range. Morley handled the difficult role with aplomb, though her sound could not be described as lush or beautiful. Adequate is the best modifier, though given the difficulty that’s saying a lot. Her acting got as much as was possible from a character who’s hard to identify with. All things combined, she was very good.
Orpheus is written for two singers a baritone, (Joshua Hopkins) and a countertenor (Jakub Józef Orlinski). Billed as Orpheus Double, the countertenor always sings with the baritone. He’s supposed to represent Orpheus’ artistic personality. When Orpheus is dealing with more mundane matters, he sings alone. I could detect no obvious pattern to the joint and single singing; it just seemed another extraneous operatic device. If hearing a man sing falsetto grates like spiked shoes on slate, then the combo here is palatable as the countertenor never sings solo. Hopkins has a pleasant baritone that handed his vocally undemanding parts with grace. I can’t judge Orlinski’s voice as it was always mixed with that of Hopkins.
Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg made his Met debut in the role of the Father in this production. His voice is resonant and well produced. He got all the was possible from a role that never leaves the comfort zone of a bass-baritone.
The most entertaining singing and acting came from veteran tenor Barry Banks as Hades. He got to wear increasingly outrageous costumes as the work progressed. He grew horns, sprouted a tail which got longer as the show went on, and even got taller. His part lies very high, but the bel canto specialist handled the altitudinous tessitura with ease. He seemed to be having a good time as the opera’s bad guy.
The three stones which guarded the entrance to Hades were played by Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, and Chad Shelton. They were rock solid.
Mary Zimmerman was in charge of the production. She had earlier assassinated both Bellini and Donizetti at the Met. She even managed to get booed by the Met’s notoriously placid audience after her staging of La Sonnambula. Her staging this time was spare and devoid of pretense or goofiness. The sets were simple and, the shower excluded, did not get in the way of the action.
This leaves the orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Met’s virtuoso band, and it was a big one for this show, with panache and subtlety. The orchestra was so good that their leader brought all of them onstage to take a collective bow during the curtain calls.
As for the viability of the opera, I’ve only heard it twice – but I doubt it’s long term survival. Orchestration without lyricism and dramatic surge cannot carry the day. I suspect it will join all the “new” operas done at the Met not written by Puccini in the storage locker.
Matthew Aucoin-Sarah Ruhl
Orpheus’s Double……..Jakub Józef Orlinski
Little Stone…………Stacey Tappan
Big Stone……………Ronnita Miller
Loud Stone…………..Chad Shelton
Offstage Soprano…….Lianne Coble-Dispensa
Set Designer…………Daniel Ostling
Costume Designer……..Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Designer…….T.J. Gerckens
Projection Designer…..S. Katy Tucker
Video Director………..Gary Halvorson