Why is hell always so much more interesting than our own world? It’s not a place to spend eternity, or even a holiday, but it’s one we’re always more than happy to peer in on. Matthew Aucoin’s underworld in his telling of the Eurydice myth, concocted with wonderful set design by Daniel Ostling, is a cold place with black walls and a black moon, more or less a dungeon. The underworld is the setting for the better part of Eurydice (which opened at the Metropolitan Opera in Mary Zimmermann's production after its initial run at Los Angeles Opera in early 2020), both in terms of artistic achievement and in occupying its most of the over two hours of stage time. The fantastically imagined staging, with a libretto by Sara Ruhl (from her 2003 play), recounts the myth of Eurydice descending into Hades and being retrieved by her composer husband Orpheus, only to be sent back to the depths when he breaks the pact and turns back to look at her before crossing into the world of the living. (A happy ending not included in this telling is found after Orpheus’s own death, when the lovers are reunited in eternal damnation.)

Barry Banks (Hades) in Act 3 of Eurydice
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

However, the loving couple isn’t altogether likeable in Aucoin and Ruhl’s adaptation. Eurydice is demanding and overly literal and Orpheus aloof and self-absorbed (to the extent that his musical compositions are an extension of himself, anyway). The less-than-appealing romantic leads don’t make Eurydice a failed opera, far from it, but they do make it an unusual one. Erin Morley plays Eurydice in both realms with grace, delivering long arias near the end of the second and third acts which were musically the most sublime parts of the evening. Her afterlife redemption – sung in letters to the living after learning what it means to love another person – is what makes the story work.

Jakub Józef Orliński (Orpheus' Double) and Joshua Hopkins (Orpheus)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

The case of Orpheus is a bit more consternating. An intriguing idea to have him portrayed (at times) by two singers – baritone Joshua Hopkins and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński – appearing side by side works well for the music, less so for the story. Is Orliński’s angelic Orpheus the hero’s soul? His conscience? Why the hero is sometimes in duplicate is never explained, and proves a distraction. 

Far more likeable was the lord of the underworld and his chorus of stones, the latter serving as law enforcement while providing the audience with useful exposition. They turned in the most memorable performances, if only by virtue of the material they were given, and Ana Kuzmanić’s costumes are imaginative embodiments of suave boss and worker drones. Barry Banks as Hades, who has a swank penthouse apartment above ground and a posh lounge down below, is everything you’d want from an enviable but unapproachable dark lord.

Barry Banks (Hades) and Erin Morley (Eurydice)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Oddly, though, the character who elicits the greatest empathy is Eurydice’s father, a smaller role portrayed with aplomb by Nathan Berg. Reunited with his daughter in the underworld, he (unlike the other condemned souls) has managed to retain his earthly memories and power of speech. He also seems to be the only character in the story capable of acting out of anything other than self-interest. Berg gives the most effective performance of the opera, broken yet hopeful and always understated, his rich baritone ever articulate.

Stacey Tappan, Erin Morley (Eurydice), Ronnita Miller and Chad Shelton (Stones)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

At just 31, Aucoin has gone from rock keyboardist to Harvard poetry summa cum laude to being named a 2018 MacArthur Fellow to, currently, serving as assistant conductor at the Met, although it was Yannick Nézet-Séguin who more than ably led this production. Eurydice, Aucoin's fifth opera, is an odd, remarkable and imminently enjoyable piece of work. He and Ruhl concoct some genuinely funny, with awkwardly stiff disco dancing at Eurydice and Orpheus’s wedding reception and, later, the orchestra animates the sound of Hades scanning radio stations. At other times, the score is foreboding, almost bombastic, or uncannily subtle and compelling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the music is better – very nearly Wagnerian in its stomps and strides – in the underworld, where our frankly annoying heroine is rendered humble, her damnation providing a small relief for those of us peering in.

Joshua Hopkins (Orpheus) and Barry Banks (Hades)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Setting a myth – one that has also been rendered by Monteverdi, Gluck and Harrison Birtwistle, no less – is a bold claim to a stake in the canon. With Eurydice, Aucoin has made a convincing case for his own timelessness.  

****1