The Metropolitan Opera – Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mary Zimmerman’s production of Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice

Matthew Aucoin
Eurydice – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Sarah Ruhl, adapted from her play [sung in English, with Met surtitles in English, German and Spanish]

Eurydice – Erin Morley
Orpheus – Joshua Hopkins
Orpheus’s Double – Jakub Józef Orliński
Father – Nathan Berg
Hades – Barry Banks
Little Stone – Stacey Tappan
Big Stone – Ronnita Miller
Loud Stone – Chad Shelton

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Mary Zimmerman – Production
Daniel Ostling – Set Designer
Ana Kuzmanic – Costume Designers
T. J. Gerckens – Lighting Designer
S. Kay Tucker – Projection Designer
Denis Jones – Choreographer

4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 23 November, 2021
Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City

This Metropolitan Opera performance marked the New York premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, a co-commission and co-production with LA Opera where it received its world premiere in February of 2020. With a libretto by Sarah Ruhl, adapted from her acclaimed 2003 play of the same title, it is an absorbing, often witty take on the Orpheus myth, which recounts how, after Eurydice dies on her wedding day, her husband Orpheus’s lamentations to the gods are so heartbreaking that they allow him to journey to the Underworld to bring her back to life, but he must not look at her on the journey homeward. When he does, she is lost forever. Aucoin and Ruhl retell the familiar tale from the viewpoint of the title character. 

The opera is not set in a specific time period, but Mary Zimmerman’s fantastical staging, a blend of absurdity and despair, suggests something close to modern times. Eurydice takes an elevator to the Land of the Dead, where three obnoxious singing stones serve as guardians of the recently departed, and a cold shower obliterates all memory. These and other equally fanciful accoutrements provide a heady dose of comic relief, and Dan Ostling’s sparse but attractively colorful scenery serves the production well. An added bonus is the projection of the text, as it is sung, directly onto the scenery. Projection designer S. Kay Tucker’s imaginative, cartoon-like creations allot each character a different style or color to clarify who is singing what. The stones’ words, for example, are all in capital letters set in speech bubbles.

Ana Kuzmanic’s whimsical costumes add to the sense of the absurd. The most outlandish outfits are worn by the god of the Underworld, Hades, who is first seen in a normal business suit but whose appearance gradually alters until he shows up in Act Three with horns and a long curling tail, wearing a tent-size robe and walking on stilts.

Ruhl’s libretto, which adheres closely to the play, is clear and strong, with a storyline centering around Eurydice more than is usual in other treatments of the Orpheus legend. In most, she is already dead at the start of the story which then goes on to focus on her distraught husband’s mourning and his journey. Ruhl’s story is more of an account of Eurydice’s experience in the Underworld and whether she chooses to stay there with her father (a character created by the librettist) or return to earth. 

Aucoin’s score is assured, engaging, demanding, instrumentally intense, highly atmospheric and wide-ranging, with allusions to Adams, Glass, Vivaldi, Wagner, Puccini, and even Gregorian Chant. It is perfectly suited to the action. Repetitive, wave-like phrases reflect the water on the beach where the opening scene takes place. A witty rock ‘n’ roll danse macabre is at the center of the wedding scene. Brooding harmonies take over when the action shifts to the Underworld where Eurydice’s father writes her a letter. And a long and loving orchestral interlude follows the father as he criss-crosses the stage, building a room for his daughter out of string.

The singers are all musically and dramatically solid. Erin Morley clearly enjoys singing the title role. As the story progresses, her characterization deepens and her vulnerability becomes more intense. She delivers her two big arias ‘There was a roar’ (a depiction of the experience of dying) and ‘This is what it is to love an artist’ (a lament about being married to a musician) fluidly and securely, although her lower notes sometimes border on the inaudible, which may have to do with the production’s less than perfect acoustics. As Orpheus, Joshua Hopkins’s bright and stately baritone nicely contrasts with Morley’s more restrained sound, particularly in Act One.

Orpheus’s double is sung by countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński in his Met debut. Unfortunately, the score doesn’t give him much opportunity to hear what he can do on his own, as his character’s vocal lines coincide with those of Orpheus. But his radiant voice singing in harmony with Hopkins’s powerful sound produces a very attractive otherworldly sound. 

In another MET debut, Nathan Berg makes an especially strong showing as Eurydice’s father, his darkly sober timbre pairing well with Morley’s graceful soprano. With their unconstrained vocal mannerisms, Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, and Chad Shelton are hilarious as (respectively), Little Stone, Big Stone, and Loud Stone.

But it is the performance of Barry Banks as a playfully menacing Hades that really steals the show. His ringing tenor is consistently powerful and secure as he relishes an abundance of high notes and creeps about with an air of lofty indifference to splendid comic effect. 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the MET Orchestra in a characterful and masterly performance of Aucoin’s dense and spirited score, and the plaintive chanting of the chorus, kept entirely offstage, provides an added layer of ghostliness at pivotal moments in the story.

Broadcast Saturday 4th December 2021 on BBC Radio 3 at 6.30 p.m.

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