A Boldly Magnificent and Moving Premiere: Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice at the Metropolitan Opera

You never know what to expect when seeing a new opera, and by “new,” I mean an opera that was recently composed and had its world premiere less than two years ago: in February 2020 at LA Opera. Usually, I avoid reading reviews of a newly created opera when I plan on seeing it. Inevitably, you can’t escape certain comments here and there. Some of the comments showed me a clear divide between those who either loved Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice and those who put it down. Some dismissed the work based on the mere youth of this composer (born in 1990), who had the “audacity” to take on the subject matter of the oldest surviving opera: Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600). Others pointed out a lack of an original voice, claiming that they were hearing musical elements that were Philip Glass or John Adams or John Williams-like or… but then I just stopped listening to comments.

So, after finally seeing the second performance of Eurydice’s run at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, I declare myself unreservedly in the “loved it” camp. The English libretto is by Sarah Ruhl, based on her 2003 play by the same name. Before the performance, I kept wondering: how do you even begin to retell the myth of Orpheus who travels to the underworld to reclaim his bride, Eurydice, when you are surrounded by such a massive number of adaptations in literature, music, film, ballet, and… even video games? How do you leave your own imprint on the story and not seem an imitator, and not make the tale either caricatural or overly melodramatic? 

Nathan Berg as the Father and Erin Morley as Eurydice in Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice.” Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

In Ruhl and Aucoin’s clever retelling, the story is refreshed by weaving in a few twists and by inventively combining elements of both comedy—sometimes to the point of caricature—and drama, but drama that truly pulls at the heartstrings. The heartbreak, for me, was not so much in Orpheus’s second loss of Eurydice as he looks at her on their way out of the underworld and loses her forever. A significant part of the tragedy lies in the dynamics between Eurydice (interpreted by Erin Morley) and her deceased father (sung with a tender, sad nobility by Nathan Berg), whom she meets in the underworld. Eurydice has, at first, to refer to her father as her “tree” until she fully recovers her language and her memory. 

In this fascinating connection between language and memory, the underworld dwellers—the souls of the dead—are portrayed as losing both language and memory, and eventually speech and hearing. They forget the meanings of words. They forget the words themselves, and thereby they forget people, even those dearest to them. This is why it takes Eurydice a while to remember the word “father” and recognize her own dad. Forgetfulness seems to be the general prescription for the dead; they are dipped into “the river” when they arrive in the underworld. This river that wipes out language and memory is sometimes symbolized by—and here’s where one of the many comedic elements comes in—a shower. Eurydice’s father succeeds in maintaining his language and memory by somehow avoiding coming into contact with the water for too long. He helps his daughter recover her words and memories as Orpheus arrives to take her back to the world of the living with him. 

Barry Banks as Hades in Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice.” Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Once Eurydice realizes that she does not want to go back to married life with an artist whose head is full of music and not of love for her, and she prefers to retreat to the underworld under the safe “tree shade” her father provides, it is too late. Eurydice’s father, believing her already back among the living, turns the shower on himself to forget the pain of losing his daughter again, to forget her entirely, and to annihilate every human trace in himself. And when Eurydice finds him… well, I will refrain from spoilers. The missed father-daughter re-encounter here is, to me, a true tragedy, and the scene, in fact, the entire last act constitutes operatic drama of the highest caliber in a thrilling combination of sweeping, nimble yet colossal music and words.

Another new twist to the myth is that Hades, the boss of the underworld (sung with highwire brilliance by tenor Barry Banks) who sports a devil’s tail, wants to marry Eurydice himself. He actually asks her to tell him if she can name even one interesting person in her life, in a way hinting that he might be the one she needs to spice up her existence. Her married existence above ground is indeed unfulfilling: whenever she asks Orpheus what he is thinking about, his answer is “music,” and she captures this pain in her languishing aria: “This is what it is to love an artist.” 

Erin Morley in the title role of Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice.” Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Soprano Erin Morley creates a touching and down-to-earth Eurydice, a woman with whom you can easily empathize. Her crystalline, supple sound that blossoms with such awe-inspiring beauty in the higher vocal spheres is unfortunately sometimes difficult to hear through the often-eclectic orchestral tumult, especially when she sings in the middle register. Were it not for the subtitles available both on the individual chair screens and via projection on Daniel Ostling’s ingenious set, it would be impossible to understand her, at times. And speaking of losing the meaning of words in the underworld, Ruhl’s libretto is so exceptional that you wouldn’t want to miss a word of it… in any world. 

Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus in Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice.” Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Yet another twist in the story is the addition of an alter ego to the character of Orpheus. The worldly Orpheus, sung with vigorous directness by baritone Joshua Hopkins, is followed around by countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski who wears angel wings and sings with and around Hopkins’s phrases, endowing them with the lucent quality of his voice, which creates some uncanny moments. Is Orpheus’s alter ego meant to be a type of Nicklausse, the disguised muse of the poet from The Tales of Hoffmann, or is he a more Freudian allusion to a creative subconscious? Does he represent the actual music in Orpheus’s head that illuminates his every utterance? It is up to the spectators to make of this doubling effect what they will. I am not certain that it was as effective as perhaps desired, although Mary Zimmerman’s staging deserves a standing ovation for its inventiveness, as for the entertaining and thrilling, at times bordering on the absurd, otherworldly aura it conveys. 

Stacey Tappan as Little Stone, Erin Morley as Eurydice, Ronnita Miller as Big Stone, and Chad Shelton as Loud Stone in Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice.” Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

However, where I find the idea of a creative alter ego unequivocally profound is at the end of the opera. When Orpheus returns yet once more to the underworld and is affected by that amnesia-inducing water, his winged alter ego is no longer with him. Which then, to me, raises the question: does Orpheus here lose his words and memories before the loss of his creative alter ego or because of that loss? For how can an artist for whom the genius of music means everything, continue to exist, even as a human being, without that genius? So, while the story is indeed focused on Eurydice, this ending somehow manages to also bring part of the tragedy back to Orpheus, which I found to be an absolutely masterful nod to the original source, in which Orpheus is the tragic hero. There is a comedic wink to that here as well, in that the three Stones (sung with aplomb and performed with majestic comedic command by Ronnita Miller, Chad Shelton and Stacey Tappan) who watch over the dead, admit that Orpheus’s sad singing brings them to tears, stone tears that is, in this place where neither singing nor crying is allowed. And as they cry yet again, stones fall from their eyes to the ground.

Jakub Józef Orlinski as Orpheus’s Double and Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus in Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice.” Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Metropolitan Opera’s music director, led the Met’s superb orchestra with verve, playfulness, lyricism, and at times, sheer force. I would now listen to this opera without watching it, just to focus on the nuances, eclecticism, and vast range of dynamics, colors, and fleeting adaptations to other musical genres that Maestro Nézet-Séguin succeeds in eliciting from the orchestra. His conducting and the instrumentalists’ performance were tours de force in themselves.

For this writer, attending Eurydice proved to be a very special return to the Metropolitan Opera after a two-year absence. It was difficult in some intermission conversations not to draw metaphoric parallels between the underworld onstage and our global harrowing journey through another “underworld” – that of illness, loss, and sadness. I think that Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice triumphs on many fronts as a work of art that’s here to stay, and manages to create a universal connection between an ancient myth and the times we live in. It is as though past and present meet in an opera that asks, on one hand, what it means to be an artist versus being human: where does one begin and the other end? And on the other hand, it poses the questions: where would we, humans, be without words, without the ability to attribute a word to a beloved relative or even to a memory, and what would we become without memories? Today, these questions ring more poignantly true than ever.

Don’t miss this boldly magnificent, moving, entertaining, and thought-provoking opera. 

Top photo: Jakub Józef Orlinski as Orpheus’s Double, Erin Morley as Eurydice, and Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus in Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice.” Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin with a libretto by Sarah Ruhl

The Metropolitan Opera – Performance dates: 
Tuesday, November 30 at 7:00 PM
Saturday, December 4th at 1:00 PM
Wednesday, December 8 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, December 11 at 8:00 PM
Thursday, December 16 at 7:00 PM

Additional information and tickets here

About Maria-Cristina Necula (133 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina is the recipient of a 2022 New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.