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Cleaving Eurydice from Orpheus

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Eurydice and Orpheus party with friends. (Nile Scott Studios)

Carolyn Abbate opens “In Search of Opera” (2001) linking the genre of opera with the butchery that severs Orpheus’ voice from his dismembered body. Sarah Ruhl, in her 2003 play “Eurydice,” and now Matthew Aucoin in his operatic setting of her text, cleave Eurydice from Orpheus, voice from instrumental music, and memory from body. The current BLO performance of the new chamber orchestra version separates and reunites characters, components, and constants as it charts constellations in this ongoing history.

Greek mythology teaches us three things about Orpheus.  He is an unparalleled musician, whose skills can move the hearts of Persephone and Hades, wild animals, and even stones. He loves Eurydice. He is killed and dismembered. Greek mythology teaches us less than three things about Eurydice. She is married to, and loves Orpheus. While being pursued, she steps on a viper, and dies. She almost returns from Hades. (To paraphrase Heraclitus, “The way down is easy. The road up is not.”) So who is this woman at the center of this tale of love and woe? What is her role in music? That is the question Ruhl poses in her drama, and one that Aucoin takes up in his music. Muse? Inspiration? Conspicuous beloved? Do any of these have a voice or an identity separate from Orpheus? From her wedding bereft of her father, through the capricious scheming of Hades and her unexpected descent to the underworld, conversations with a trio of stones she finds there, and her father who dotes upon and cares for her, Eurydice waltzes through the plot. While Orpheus is thinking about music, she concerns herself with words; Shakespeare, especially “King Lear,” figure prominently in this tale. Agency is restored to Eurydice:  here, it is implied, she has a choice to stay or go now when Orpheus descends in his quest to find her.

Is Eurydice’s agency illusory? I cannot escape the conclusion she remains as much a pawn here as in earlier versions. Orpheus wants a wedding party; Eurydice leaves it. Eurydice misses her father; Hades manipulates her loss into her demise. In Act III, Eurydice writes a letter “To Orpheus’s Future Wife” about how to tend and cultivate the musician. Does she ever step into a room of her own? Her father tries, crafting her one from string in the underworld; the third act sees it destroyed. Is Eurydice’s absence a condition for music? Ruhl and Aucoin makes a case for this proposition here. An exchange in Act I captures this conundrum:

Eurydice:  I don’t know that I want to be an instrument.
Orpheus:  Why?

Contradictory goals crash together in this short-lived, long-loved marriage.

Hades (David Portillo) Nile Scott Studios

Ruhl’s project is founded on a post-classical rupture between words and music. Aucoin intuits this:  the opera begins with a disconnect between orchestral and vocal writing which find their happy reunion beginning in vocal ensemble pieces in Act I, then the entirety of Act III where opera resumes the familiar, harmonious blend of contrarieties with orchestra and voices pacing in tandem, bringing thrill and sweep and power to heightened affect. The combined forces of Aucoin and Ruhl make of Eurydice an interrogation of the limits, meaning, the very definition, of anachronism. This play with allusion and history, ontology and epistemology, continues with the Stones (Little, Big, & Loud), whose (seeming) intransigence and impermanence (masquerading as permanence) testify to the  power of music in its ineffable guises.

This production marks the debut of a reduced orchestration of Eurydice, commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Grand Rapids. At no time did the music ever seem slimmed, trimmed, dieted; the sound world was consistently ample, rich, varied. The music begins with the open, repetitive chords of Glass, Reich, Adams then expands to the lush chordal scapes of the operatic demesne; this is a more complex, more engaging orchestral part. The lines for voice start off insipidly pedestrian. With Hades’ “Orpheus’ fingers are weak and long” the solo vocal lines acquire depth. Remarkably as the opera opens, Eurydice is the more operatic role and Orpheus the plain. In Act II, the Big Stone sings, “Eurydice was a musician. Orpheus was her husband.” Loud Stone quickly corrects this line but isn’t it really a corruption? Here Eurydice is the musician; only in Act III, bereft of his wife and storming the citadel of Hades in his passion and longing does Orpheus rise to the mantle of tradition. Aucoin’s score still contains multitudes enough to move mountains and soothe feral beasts, as well as Boston audiences.

Eurydice brings several debuts to Boston Lyric Opera. Sydney Mancasola (soprano) animated Eurydice with strength and conviction, a good range and variety of expression, marred only by consistently curious enunciations that sent my eyes to the surtitles to decipher the text. Elliot Madore (baritone) sang Orpheus with a clear, strong voice. In Act III his projection seemed forced, perhaps overcoming a quirk of acoustics in this space? David Portillo (tenor) embodied Hades with verve and grace and depth. Mark S. Doss (bass-baritone) as Father gave an affecting performance that was emotive, varied, warm, and supple. Nicholas Kelliher (countertenor) spirited Orpheus Double—a tricky role that involved singing from the balcony, offstage, backstage, onstage; with Orpheus and separate; sometimes an echo at the halfstep, and other times a separate vocal line entirely. Kelliher rose to these challenges and smoothly adapted his presence to suit the needs from passage to passage. Of the trio of stones, Alexis Peart as Big Stone stood out for her vocal and stage presence and delivery.

The Huntington Theater is not a large space; the set here is an ingenious and versatile piece which serves the scene beautifully. The curtain opens on a gray backdrop wall some ten feet high. Later the wall separates to become a stair. Atop the wall becomes a seaside promenade, a penthouse apartment, the world of the living. Doors open inside it, revealing the “Lethe-vator” (waters of forgetfulness raining inside the elevator).

For all the praise I heap upon Douglas Fitch for the set design, I subtract infinitely more for his costume design. Normally costumes do not elicit such strong sensations of loathing and repulsion from me; this half-baked scheme, disjointed over the course of the evening, distracted and detracted from the performance. Beginning with Ken and Barbie blondes whose tie-dyed occupation is “Beach,” through a wedding party in Hawaiian print shirts, the look borrows from the summer film without the intelligently playful nods to deeper meaning. Pity poor Hades, whose journey on this stage traverses an Oompa Loompa (but gigantic in stature and with a knee-length green beard), a rococo Venus of Willendorf in faux-fur-print-trimmed heels (beautifully realized by CostumeWorks, Inc., even if senselessly placed in this production), and a crinolined yellow dress with width enough to clear the stage and a hairdo become a braided, uptwisted pair of green horns. Yes, opera is as dramatic as looks served on Drag Race, but there is no discernible logic to these choices save self-indulgence, and what might be intended as camp reads as self-loathing homophobia. We are miles distant from the mischievous, tantrum-throwing, tricycle-riding manchild Hades of Ruhl’s play.

This show runs through Sunday March 10th. See related interview HERE.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment.

Orpheus (Elliot Madore) proposes to Eurydice (Sydney Mancasola) Nile Scott-Studios
Orpheus (Elliot Madore) (right) and his Double (Nicholas  Kelliher) enter the Underworld in the company of the stones. Nile Scott Studios

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Matthew Aucoin’s music for Eurydice, which owes a debt but not too much of one to the minimalism of Philip Glass, was indeed admirable, and the reduced orchestra worked well enough, although the absence of more than a skeletal string section was palpable. The singers were excellent throughout. The opera suffers from a libretto that fails to clarify the motivations of the principal characters, especially Eurydice. I could see no good reason for having Eurydice’s father quote bits of the Lear-Cordelia dialogue or for Orpheus to abruptly switch to Latin for a brief bit. While I had no objection to the presence of the shadow Orpheus, I didn’t see that it added to the narrative. Aucoin’s music deserved better. Unlike Mr. Prince, I was not put off by the sets and costumes (even the outlandish ones worn by Hades). Like the three Stones who formed the Greek chorus, Mr. Hades’s outfits provided welcome comic relief from an otherwise clumsily written narrative. Note to surtitlist: Eurydice’s brief excursion into French, “Je suis arrivé,” uses the wrong gender.

    Comment by Phillip Radoff — March 7, 2024 at 9:21 am

  2. I enjoyed this opera immensely thanks to the consistently interesting variety of the music, along with this production’s spectacularly beautiful sets, lighting effects and costumes plus excellent voices and acting. (I noticed a quotation in the orchestra from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but it came and went so quickly I could not relate to it. But the idea of quoting from another familiar work was a pleasant jolt in the otherwise contemporary score, if only it were long enough to be able to grasp its significance.) It was a more engaging production than the Metropolitan Opera’s production of a couple of years ago which I saw in HD. The story line is sometimes puzzling, the shadow Orpheus adds nothing that I could tell, and, most critically, opportunities in the direction for deep emotional connection were disappointingly and inexplicably missed. The living rocks were a surprisingly effective humorous chorus. The frequent and unnecessary role that marriage played in the libretto felt terribly retrograde and irritating in 2024 — would have been more appropriate in the ’50s. Love of course is the crux of the story; marriage is utterly superfluous. And I would have loved to have seen the creative team come onstage for well-deserved appreciative applause as they were such a critical part of the production’s success. (But how would we know who was the set designer, the lighting designer and the costumier? Maybe signs hung around their necks!?)

    Comment by Jan Dovenitz — March 11, 2024 at 4:29 pm

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