Maybe the Met can make a habit of this. For the second time in two months, a new opera has popped onto the august stage in a cloud of high-precision excitement. Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice had its world premiere at L.A. Opera in February, 2020, just before COVID shut performances down, and its arrival at the Met was supposed to take place last year. It’s worth the wait. Expertly wrought, finely produced, and performed with genuine show-biz verve, Eurydice should provide management with an epiphany: This is what we’re supposed to be doing — and it’s fun. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin always does his job with enough glee to make even a funeral festive, but he surely wasn’t the only performer enjoying himself on opening night. For a good time, knock at the gates of hell.
In most versions of the source myth, Orpheus is an artist/hero, strapping on his lyre like an AK-47 and charging into the mouth of hell to rescue his beloved wife Eurydice with a fusillade of irresistible music. But the same impulsiveness that propels him there dooms the enterprise: He takes a forbidden look over his shoulder, and, as the opera’s Hades warns: “Poof—she’s gone!”
Sarah Ruhl adapted the libretto from her own 2003 play, and she is more interested in the rescuee — what it’s like for her to die, or half-die, wait, hope, plod back toward life, and then die again. There’s a lot of vibrancy left in the world of shades. Eurydice (sung by Erin Morley), irritable at first about being led into a dim, dank pit, eventually settles in and finds that there is comfort in surrender. The half-light and lassitude, punctuated by flashes of wit, resemble depression more than death, and when Orpheus shows up to roust her from it, she is afraid to relinquish it.
In Aucoin’s setting, Orpheus (Joshua Hopkins) can’t go it alone. A countertenor double (Jakub Józef Orliński) sticks close by, and his voice winds itself around Hopkins’s warm baritone like a lute string vibrating in sympathy. The device yields moments of male companionship that seem touching until you remember that the character’s closest relationship is with himself.
Eurydice’s ambivalence, which dooms her and wrecks her husband’s mission, is the opera’s emotional engine — or should be, except that Aucoin is too wedded to crisp dramatic moments and powerful declarations to capture those flickering emotions in music. “This is what it is to love an artist,” she sings in her centerpiece number — it means basking in the warmth of his genius and accepting his distractibility. “Inside his head there is always something more beautiful.” The aria is simultaneously a tour de force and a disappointment. Morley delivers Eurydice’s fluttering lines with pathos and aplomb, but the opposing forces of energy and melancholy don’t balance out, and the moment is a rare dip in the score’s intensity.
Another aspect of Ruhl’s libretto that Aucoin can’t quite find his way through is its wit. Humor is famously all in the timing, and when the score dictates rhythm and inflection, a singer doesn’t have a lot of leeway to find the sweet spot. That’s one reason that singing a comic line in an opera house rarely get a response more raucous than a chuckle. (Another is that opera composers tend not to be that funny.)
Still, it’s a good day in the opera world when a company in need of fresh invention finds a composer with vocal music in his bones. Aucoin’s command of the genre is dazzling. You can see it most clearly in the character of Hades, sung with true Mephistophelean nastiness by the tenor Barry Banks. Each note is cut like a diamond to fit in Banks’s pealing upper register, to deliver a word with strange, exaggerated clarity, to zip through the clattering orchestra, and to summon the character’s air of lofty indifference. Despite his tail and his horns and his chartreuse dinner jacket, Hades isn’t an especially malicious fiend. He’s the underworld’s manager, tending to his guests’ discomfort and erecting procedural barriers to their departure.
Mary Zimmerman’s production and Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes amp up the mixture of wackiness and despair. A shower stall of oblivion, a wedding gown dipped in underworld muck, a cramped elevator from the land of the living, a troupe of dancing dead (choreographed by Denis Jones) — all these theatrical flourishes leaven the opera’s core of sadness with a sense of the absurd. So does a trio of warbling rocks: petulant, stubborn creatures who insist on the rules. They are Ruhl’s creations, but Aucoin has colored them in with such vivid music that it’s hard to imagine them not singing. Wagner’s got his Rhine maidens, Verdi his weird sisters; Aucoin’s got stones.
The Orpheus myth furnished the plot for the first surviving opera (by Jacopo Peri), the first great opera (by Claudio Monteverdi), and recent(-ish) works by Philip Glass and his contemporary Harrison Birtwistle, plus dozens more in between. It takes a lot of nerve to insert yourself into that lineage. At times he seems almost to be taunting his forerunners, retooling their styles for his own purposes. The bereaved Orpheus “played the saddest music,” we’re told — and sure enough, he shows up in the world’s sub-basement, sharing an elevator with his mirror-image sidekick and delivering a refracted Monteverdi madrigal full of plangent dissonances. Other familiar sounds flash by, too: the heavy-footed jagged dance music at the couple’s wedding, the bursts of cantering orchestration à la Glass, the darkly baroque fanfares that greet Hades’s entrance. You can imagine Aucoin rummaging through his stylistic toolbox and yelling ah-ha when he emerges with just the right gizmo. But he loses focus quickly, flicking from one to the other before they’ve had a chance to settle on the ear.
The grand exception to that impatience is the scene when Eurydice’s (dead) father faces the audience after she’s abandoned him to head back upstairs. He has already spent much of his afterlife trying to get her attention (a letter from beyond the grave on her wedding day gets the whole story going), and her premature arrival has given father and daughter a second chance to bond. When she asks to be shown to her room, he makes one out of string, pacing off the dimensions and establishing a border within which she will be under his protection. Aucoin fills that long bit of silent stage business with an orchestral interlude that brims with tenderness and drama. But now she is gone again, and the second loss is too much for him to bear: He gets undressed to wash in the waters of Lethe, which erase all memories and sensation, completing his separation from the living world.
As he prepares, he rehearses the route he once took every day, ticking off exits and highway numbers that take him home by the banks of the Mississippi. Aucoin gives bass-baritone Nathan Berg the perfect music to express the tragic plainness of that recitation: none at all. The moment is a counterpart to Hades’s vocal antics: All the artifice and showmanship of singing falls away and the father simply speaks his lines. It must be painful for a composer to give up such a perfect opportunity for an aria of reflection, but then this is a work about renunciation.
After the final fadeout, Nézet-Séguin led the entire orchestra onstage for a curtain call, a novel but suddenly necessary reminder that more than 100 top-flight professionals had just made a demanding new score sound as if it had been marinating in the orchestra’s repertoire for years.