It seemed appropriate that after the first performance of Matthew Aucoin’s opera Eurydice at the Met, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the entire orchestra onstage to take a bow. They had certainly been playing a lot of music, sustaining an unabated pulse for three acts with a brightness, clarity, and percussive precision that might almost have made you forget you were watching an opera about dying. They did more than justice to an insistently vigorous score full of quick changes and fleeting stylistic intrusions of everything from Philip Glass to tango music to medieval chant to Wagnerian overload to Bergian dissonance, all moving forward like a motor that can’t be stopped. “For musicians,” Aucoin writes in his new book, The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera, “the most inescapable myth of all is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” and here it’s as if the music evoked by this myth is a watery fusion of epochs. At thirty-one, Aucoin writes with a precise awareness of what has gone before in this domain; he opens his book by surveying the many operatic variations of the myth, with a focus on Monteverdi, Charpentier, and Harrison Birtwistle.
This seeping through of layers of the past is fully in keeping with Orphic tradition. Every recasting of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice seems to demand to be recast in turn, migrating from one medium to another, so that (in modern times alone) Jean Cocteau’s play and movie Orphée became an opera by Philip Glass and an insistent reference point in the poems of Jack Spicer’s The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether; Vinicius de Moraes and Antônio Carlos Jobim’s stage production Orfeu da Conceição became Marcel Camus’s film Black Orpheus; and Jean Anouilh’s occupation-era transposition Eurydice is ritually reenacted in Alain Resnais’s extraordinary penultimate film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. Perhaps at the bottom of all these reenvisioned reenvisionings is the hope that this time it might turn out differently, the fatal backward glance averted, death for the nonce outtricked.
To engage with the myth encourages trickery, the invention of a new story in which Orpheus might somehow not succumb to the urge to look back, and art by its own will to persist would conjure a world in which death was somehow (however obliquely or vicariously) defeated. At such a juncture art is all there is, and at the same time it is not quite enough. Since Aucoin declares opera to be the quintessential “impossible art” (because “an imagined union of all the human senses and all art forms…is itself an impossibility”), what more suitable subject than the myth that so emphatically demonstrates the impossibility of the triumph over death that art ultimately aspires to? He has already dealt with the subject in a short dramatic cantata called The Orphic Moment, founded on a particular notion of Orpheus as “the ultimate narcissistic aesthete,” half-deliberately provoking loss as a goad to making art.1
The opera is itself a recasting of a freestanding, highly accomplished work well calculated to knock that figure to the margins of the story. Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice, which premiered in 2003, aims for once to reverse the perspective and follow Eurydice into the underworld. Here she is reunited after a fashion with her dead father, and this reunion becomes the center of the play, a countermyth with its own tragic ending, in which the backward glance is prompted by her speaking Orpheus’s name in a moment of ambivalent hesitation. (Ruhl, whose father died when she was twenty, has said, “It made sense to me that if Eurydice went to the underworld she would meet her father. She wanted to have more conversations with him the way I wanted to have more conversations with my father.”) I have never seen it performed, but the spare, vernacular, rapid dialogue would seem to lend itself to a multitude of possible performance styles. Sudden chasms of dream logic and dark humor function within a structure that feels at once made up on the spot and eerily ordained.
Aucoin writes of the play’s “sometimes-goofy, Alice in Wonderland” effect, and Ruhl’s Eurydice does resemble Alice’s grieving doppelgänger, down the rabbit hole for good and abandoned to the unconsoling company of a trio of bullying stones. The edge of comic disruption is in no way inconsistent with the through line of grief. The libretto pares the play down and adds a few additional elements without damaging its skeletal strength, and however forceful the score’s pulse, it does no more than keep pace with the play’s own darting, light-footed, but equally relentless rhythm. Between them Aucoin and Ruhl have fashioned an opera that for all the familiarity of the myth and profusion of whimsical invention generates a suspension of disbelief. Against all expectations, the plight of the newly dead entering into oblivion becomes a matter of empathetic concern.
At the production’s outset, the curtain, which resembles an aquatint of a brooding landscape of forested hills and misty glens, seems to bode some folkloric supernatural realm of trolls and mountain spirits, and the first bars of music likewise are a dark ominous swirl sounding orchestral depths. The curtain rises on something quite different: a bright abstraction of beach and sky, the flat sun a perfect circle fixed calmly above like a big yellow beach ball, a postcard representation of a generic happiness. Orpheus (Joshua Hopkins) and Eurydice (Erin Morley) are out on a date; with gestures he offers her sky and birds and sea; she says (or sings) “Wow.” It doesn’t feel like the proverbial day at the beach, since the orchestral music keeps getting between them, intervening persistently and emphatically in every pause between their tentative forays into each other’s hidden thoughts.
Aucoin has written that in opera “the music and the poetry should each, ideally, manifest a certain stubbornness; their desires should even be somewhat at odds with each other.” Such a contestation seems to permeate the opera, with Orpheus and Eurydice themselves sometimes acting out the struggle. They appear to be a young couple intent on transcendent bonding but never quite able to communicate. Orpheus is preoccupied with music; Eurydice retreats a bit, as if sensing that his music wants to take possession of her. His preoccupation is made visible and audible by the descent via celestial elevator of his winged twin (Jakub Józef Orliński on opening night; John Holiday on some subsequent dates). This character—one of the elements added to Ruhl’s play, figuring indeterminately as muse, other self, divine messenger, or secret lover—is a countertenor whose voice intertwines with Orpheus’s baritone to signal, presumably, moments of the most unalloyed inspiration. In turning toward him, Orpheus turns away from Eurydice, suggesting some motive for her later uncertainty in calling out to him at the crucial moment.
Before we have gotten to know them, or perhaps before they have gotten to know each other, the couple are engaged, with their cries of “Yes!” “Yes!” sounding a little too desperate, just as the festivity of the wedding that quickly follows feels too insistently, mechanically exuberant. As Orpheus and Eurydice finish reciting their self-scripted vows, the party kicks into gear with a blast of what sounds like Balkan wedding music, something out of Goran Bregović’s raucous score for Emir Kusturica’s appropriately titled film Underground. The music thumps but is scarcely cheerful—it couldn’t be further away from, say, the ethereally buoyant wedding chorus from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, with its effortless conjuring of the pervading delight, no matter how tinged with melancholy, of mere being. Nothing here suggests a world of luscious pleasures that one would never, under any circumstances, want to say farewell to. When Eurydice sings “I hate parties,” it doesn’t come as a surprise. She walks away from her own wedding party to get a drink of water—a water cooler standing in the middle of nowhere becomes a minimal symbol of the sunlit world she is about to leave, and a premonition of the waters that wash away the memories of newcomers to the underworld.
Every word sung is projected onstage. This is not merely a convenience for the spectators, but an integral part of the production. The words are not above or apart from the opera but within it, as participants. Displayed in a variety of styles and positions, their precisely calibrated timing becomes, inaudibly, a part of the music. We see every phrase as it is sung, a doubling that accentuates at each moment the primacy of language in this story in which the dead send letters to the living and the living to the dead. In a first glimpse of what awaits, we encounter Eurydice’s dead father (Nathan Berg)—still wearing an old-fashioned business suit, in a cage-like cabinet on top of which a mortuary angel crouches—as he writes her congratulations on her wedding. The cursive letters of his sentences melt away as soon as they are inscribed, water being the fundamental sign of death here.
The newly arrived Eurydice must learn to comprehend the language of the dead. But her father has managed to evade the waters of oblivion and retain the memory of human language, and he restores her to a half-life by helping her reclaim, with difficulty, its vocabulary, finally singing to her Lear’s last words to Cordelia. By hanging on to names they cultivate a forbidden archive of memories, memories that no longer have any link to the living world. The Father himself is a relic; there is a moment when, emerging from the dark, he resembles a nineteenth-century archaeologist making his way through a labyrinth in which he has been buried once and for all. If Orpheus has a double, Eurydice’s existence in the underworld hovers between two other male figures: the Father, who by stirring up memory sustains a connection to life, and Hades (Barry Banks), who accosted her outside her wedding party and lured her toward death by offering to show her a letter from her father.
Hades, who sings in a screechingly high tenor register, materializes first as a lounge lizard proffering dubious cocktails to Eurydice in a penthouse suite while twiddling with the radio dial to find suitable mood music. (It’s a ploy that leads to her tumbling down the six hundred steps of his stairway into the underworld.) Later, in his infernal headquarters, giving Orpheus the ground rules for Eurydice’s rescue, he presents himself as the chintziest of Halloween Lucifers, with horns and coiled tail; subsequently, as he asserts his full domination, he parades even more absurdly on stilts. Flanked by shadowy demonic minions who might be refugees from a ballet in a French Baroque opera, Banks’s Hades carries on like a comic emcee at a members-only nightclub, getting the biggest laugh of the night when he asks Orpheus if he isn’t enjoying his grief too much.2 Since the Lord of the Underworld has the last laugh, it’s fitting he should exude a clownishness indistinguishable from cruelty.
Once we reach the country of death, the earlier sunlit scenes fade into faintly recalled sketches. Mary Zimmerman’s production, with sets designed by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Ana Kuzmanic, reserves its strongest sense of place for the underworld, even if it is a place of shifting appearances, where sharply defined spaces emerge from darkness and fade as if they never were, an anteroom still harboring traces of longing for places and people already irretrievable, a bardo state or a theater of the mind more real than life above ground. It’s raining in the elevator in which Eurydice arrives, and she steps out carrying an umbrella, dressed in a bright green coat of an earlier era, to find herself surrounded by the trio of gray stones who are there to initiate her into the rules of being dead. (Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, and Chad Shelton operate almost as a percussion section in human form, carrying a lot of the production’s weight as they boss, bray, panic, and sob in a grotesque parody of human feeling.) The phantasms can be auditory as well, like the unseen train whose passage is so distinctively marked by a blend of strings, flute, and piccolo over a low rumble of drums.
In this scene of arrival Erin Morley’s Eurydice begins to assert her presence fully, as if a latent strength surged in reaction to her confusion, her amnesia, her inability to grasp where she is or to recognize her father, whom she mistakes for a porter welcoming her to a foreign city. She rises into the intensity of a belated self-realization that makes the scenes between Eurydice and the Father the core of the opera’s emotional life, the assertion of an impossible persistence. The central action, however, is neither sung nor spoken but mutely performed, as the Father moves around the stage with a ball of string, marking off a room for Eurydice within the void of the underworld, as if to act out Paul Klee’s definition of drawing as “taking a line for a walk.” The effect of the bare boundary of string is epic enough in itself to make the music that accompanies it almost superfluous. The flimsiest of borders becomes the last and only dividing line between form and formlessness, home and homelessness.
Eurydice, finally offered a chance to return to the surface world with Orpheus, is torn by a desire to stay with the Father; he, believing she has already gone on her way, submits to the obliterating waters of a river, which here takes the form of a shower stall in a tiny bathroom. Returning to find him definitively lost to her, Eurydice surrenders to the same process: a double suicide, each dying a second death. The Father’s final monologue, in which he dredges up from childhood memory the directions to the river (“Take Route 88 West to Route 80. You’ll go over a bridge. Go three miles and you’ll come to the exit for Middle Road…”), is spoken, not sung, over what Aucoin describes as “a gentle, watery texture.” It’s as if language were drowning in sound.
The opera’s reversal of perspective means that Orpheus takes on a role that is, if not diminished, then at least more distant. We are a long way away from the piercingly beautiful (or beautifully piercing) grief of Monteverdi’s Orpheus, gathering all feeling into itself while Eurydice barely makes her presence heard. Here Orpheus’s plaintive reflections and outcries after the death of Eurydice seem like remote transmissions, more depressed than anguished. The opening scene showed an Orpheus at once naive, vulnerable, detached, and almost arrogant in his absorption in his own art. He is locked in communication, but it is not clear with what; and his determination to retrieve Eurydice seems compounded of boyish bravado as much as of despair.
When he arrives at the walls of Hell, we are given an impressive full-frontal view of them, something more solid and clear-cut than the shadowlands within: more like the implacable architecture of an old epic movie like Land of the Pharaohs or The Egyptian, with music textured momentarily to match that evocation, as if the infernal powers could call on Bernard Herrmann or Dimitri Tiomkin to shore up their defenses. Told he can only sing to the dead in a dead language, Orpheus and his angelic double respond with a Latin chant, music from a crypt to break open a crypt. It is lovely but lost, nothing that might plausibly move the heart of Hades, who in any case prefers “happy music with a nice beat.”
It is instead Eurydice who is given an aria of love fully recollected to sing, even if it is a love of an artist who “is always going away from you.” In death as in life they finally fail to connect, moving in opposite directions until the moment when Orpheus, no longer singing, arrives by the same elevator in the land of the dead, entering the same silence and darkness as Eurydice, picking up a letter he can no longer read. It is not so much an ending as a stopping point, the sudden clicking off of a large machine.