The Met has a hit on its hands, with Eurydice, an opera by Matthew Aucoin. It opened last night—opened at the Metropolitan Opera, that is. It had its premiere in Los Angeles last year. Composers have been playing with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice since the beginning of time, almost. They play on. The libretto of the new opera is by Sarah Ruhl, who adapted it from a play of hers—also called Eurydice (2003). She tells the ancient story from the point of view of the woman, rather than the man (meaning Eurydice, rather than Orpheus).
Aucoin is an American born in 1990. From 2012 to 2014, he worked on the Met music staff. I will tell you how his score begins.
Orpheus and Eurydice are on the beach, you should know. The former is proposing marriage to the latter, coyly. The music is fluid and colorful. You hear a wash—a heaving wash. You might even think of the opening of Das Rheingold.
What else do you hear? About Aucoin’s score, I will generalize.
It has a little motor, which rarely pauses. I want to use the word “Glassian” (as in Philip). Often, the score is lulling. But there is plenty of sharp writing—angular writing, waking you up—too. In common with other contemporary American scores, there is lots of percussion, soft percussion. Aucoin deploys it well.
Speaking of contemporary American scores: Do you know that music that sounds like swarming insects? Buzzy, dizzying music, suggesting confusion or danger? You hear a lot of that in Eurydice, too. Elsewhere, the score is jazzy, lugubrious, funny. Tenderly Romantic, soaringly Romantic. Numinous, luminous. Aucoin can be complicated—brainy—but he also dares to be simple.
And he is respectful of the words—one of those composers who love to marry words and music.
Speaking of the words: Sarah Ruhl’s libretto is smart, conveying pathos and humor and various other qualities. It is very natural, this libretto. Singable, too, it seemed to me.
Is Orpheus a bad guy in this show? If not quite a bad guy, at least a clueless guy? He is depicted as being absorbed in his music, maybe not attentive enough to Eurydice. She is not eager to leave the underworld to rejoin him “up there.” In fact, she refuses. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle? And yet, she wants to be with her father, down below.
I felt certain that the libretto, the story, was communicating profundities about memory and forgetting. I must confess, I did not always grasp the profundities. Maybe you would have better luck.
Before I get to the production and cast, let me indulge in an aside, concerning language. Early in the opera, the Father says, “I am one of the only dead people who still remembers how to read and write.” I thought of my old friend William F. Buckley Jr. He is one of the only people, anywhere, who still say—following the rules of grammar—“I am one of the only dead people who still remember how to read and write.”
Thanks for the indulgence. Now on with the show.
The production is by Mary Zimmerman, and it is neat, clean, clever, and fitting. The words of the libretto appear at the back of the stage—flash there, I mean—in creative ways.
Singing the title role, Eurydice, was Erin Morley, the American soprano. She is ever reliable, at least in my experience. Last night, she sang precisely and beautifully, often in the stratosphere, which is to say, in her upper, upper register. She simply “let it happen,” never forcing anything.
Also, she was winning, winsome. Years ago, I said, repeatedly, that Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau—to name two—had a “secret ingredient,” namely “adorability.” Erin Morley has it too. This is no small gift for a singer, or a performer of any kind.
Orpheus was Joshua Hopkins, the Canadian baritone, who sang in his usual handsome fashion. He had a “double,” or rather Orpheus did, which I found a little confusing. Also immaterial. That double was portrayed by Jakub Józef Orliński, with skill. He is a Polish countertenor. And I’ll tell you something funny (possibly).
For most of the evening—all of it?—Orliński was bare-chested. I thought of the “bari-hunks,” as they were dubbed, of yore. These were baritones who often had their shirt off. For about ten years, I think, I never saw Nathan Gunn with his shirt on (except maybe in a lieder recital).
There was another Canadian in the cast, besides Joshua Hopkins: Nathan Berg, a bass-baritone. He portrayed the Father, with dignity and assurance.
Then we have our bad guy—not Orpheus but Hades, Lord of the Underworld. He was Barry Banks, the English tenor, who has been nailing high notes for . . . how long? Forty years? He is nailing them still, and I mean difficult ones, not ones you can slide up to or merely bellow. Banks showed magnificent technical skill, plus beauty of voice, and he was a hoot as Hades.
In the pit was the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He was sensational. Brilliant. He conducted with nimbleness, intelligence, refinement, and passion. He was utterly committed to the score, giving it the royal treatment. If Aucoin’s Eurydice lasts another hundred years, or more, will it ever again be so well conducted? The Met orchestra responded to its chef with virtuosity and flair.
At the end, he had them join him, on the stage, exhorting the audience to applaud them, which they did, happily.
Matthew Aucoin has written a substantial work—a smart and interesting and beautiful work. For me, there were stretches of tedium, but, as regular readers know: when aren’t there? It is a pleasure to applaud a new opera, and readers, and operagoers, will want to go see for themselves.