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Eurydice, a new opera, looks back all too tamely
From left, Kevin Ray as Loud Stone, Raehann Bryce-Davis as Big Stone, and Stacey Tappan as Small Stone, in “Eurydice” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Jan. 29, 2020. The composer Matthew Aucoin is deferential to Sarah Ruhl’s text, in a Los Angeles production that comes to the Met Opera next year. Emily Berl/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini



LOS ANGELES (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Composer Matthew Aucoin began working on “Crossing,” his first opera, when he was in college. It was a work of enormous talent, exciting promise and considerable hubris: Aucoin wrote his own libretto, inventing a story about Walt Whitman’s work with wounded soldiers during the Civil War.

If “Crossing” (2015) lacked “a certain kind of unity” — as Aucoin, now 29, said in a recent interview — it was still taut, intense and audacious. What would he do next?

The answer came Saturday, with the premiere of “Eurydice” at the Los Angeles Opera, where it runs through Feb. 23 before traveling to the Metropolitan Opera in New York next year. This project demanded a very different approach. Aucoin didn’t write the libretto; instead, the text was a collaboration with playwright Sarah Ruhl, closely hewing to her 2003 play, a modern-day take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth that tells the story from the woman’s perspective.

The play is meditative and surreal, fantastical and funny. Aucoin said in the interview that he thought he needed to do remarkably little: He wanted just to “tap” the words, to release the wells of emotional undercurrents in Ruhl’s clean, simple phrases. Throughout this three-act opera, you sense Aucoin honorably striving to serve the play.

He may have been overly deferential. Ruhl’s libretto called for a lighter, more enchanting score than “Crossing.” But the musical language of “Eurydice” is at times curiously tame.

I liked the opera most when, during fraught episodes, the music turns jagged and dangerous. Whenever Aucoin gives vent to his liveliest voice — with hints here of Maurice Ravel, Benjamin Britten and Thomas Adès — the opera takes off.

I sat up every time he seemed to push the libretto aside briefly to let some gnarly, skittish music take charge, especially in the incisive performance he conducted. And director Mary Zimmerman’s inventive production conveys the right mix of whimsical fairy tale and disturbing morality play through a simple, colorful staging, with sets by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Ana Kuzmanic.

After a short, quizzical overture, we meet Orpheus and Eurydice, dressed for fun at the beach. The vivacious Eurydice (soprano Danielle de Niese) seems smitten with the hearty Orpheus (baritone Joshua Hopkins). Yet you soon sense her doubts. A self-absorbed — if supernaturally talented — musician, Orpheus doesn’t share her passion for books and words. When he looks distracted and Eurydice asks him what he’s thinking about, he answers: “music.”

In the opera’s boldest stroke, Aucoin, who sees Orpheus as a divided character, gives him a double. Orpheus the everyday guy — clueless if also endearing — is sung by Hopkins, with firm voice and youthful swagger. But Orpheus also has a godlike dimension, represented here by a countertenor, John Holiday, who appears in moments when Orpheus’ questing nature comes out. Eurydice doesn’t see Orpheus’ double, but panicky outbursts in the orchestra and her sputtered vocal lines suggest that she senses him.

Eurydice readily accepts Orpheus’ marriage proposal. But soon after, in the underworld, we see her deceased father, a sad, reflective man who still adores his daughter. (He is sung by mellow-voiced baritone Rod Gilfry — an old Aucoin hand, having originated the role of Whitman in “Crossing.”)

He writes a letter to Eurydice, offering the fatherly advice he would have shared at the ceremony. Aucoin shows respect for the tender, charming words by setting them to somber music of lyrical pining over restless orchestral stirrings. But I wanted less reverence and more intensity.

The wedding scene is wonderful, with guests dancing to gyrating music; at one point the orchestra becomes a riot of squiggly riffs. But Eurydice is somehow dissatisfied. “I always thought there would be more interesting people at my wedding,” she says.

Well, an interesting person appears: Hades, a character Aucoin clearly relished, written for high-lying tenor and sung fearlessly by Barry Banks. The god of the underworld, Hades first seems courtly, snaring Eurydice by telling her he has a letter for her from her father. Aucoin has a penchant for using the orchestra to hug vocal lines. He takes this to arresting extremes with Hades: Groups of instruments buttress, enclose, mimic and sometimes needle every syllable.

De Niese, though strained at times, sang with fullness and richly expressive shadings. She was riveting — a young woman tortured with indecision — as she went off with Hades then tumbled into the underworld.

The darkest element of the play and opera is how the underworld is depicted: The dead pass through a river of forgetfulness, where they lose their memories and even language. Eurydice’s father has secretly kept possession of a pen — forbidden below — and his English. In a heartbreaking moment, the dead Eurydice arrives, holding an umbrella that has not protected her from the waters. She mistakes her beloved father for a porter.

Almost every musical telling of this myth has a moment when Orpheus sings a song that so enchants the gatekeepers of the underworld that he is given permission to enter and reclaim his wife. Aucoin’s version, with Orpheus joined by his double, is more a stentorian demand that an aria of lyrical persuasion. I thought the music, for all its stern fortitude, needed more threatening fervor.

The emotions of the characters are poked at throughout by a trio of bizarre figures: Little Stone (Stacey Tappan), Big Stone (Raehann Bryce-Davis) and Loud Stone (Kevin Ray). Like an irreverent Greek chorus, they laugh at human pretensions and encourage people to feel nothing. (No one gets hurt that way.) As they trade phrases and boisterously overlap, Aucoin’s music for them is aptly snide and harmonically slippery.

A chorus of nearly 40 voices provides harmonic plushness and ethereal sounds during crucial episodes. But Zimmerman, with the blessing of Aucoin, keeps the chorus backstage in an effort to focus on the main characters. This seemed a major miscalculation. The choral writing added pungency to the score. And the drama, which sometimes felt static, could have benefited from the presence of witnesses onstage. Zimmerman might reconsider this before the production travels to the Met, which co-commissioned the work.

When Orpheus is poised to lead his wife up to Earth’s surface — agreeing not to look back as he does so — this Eurydice, her memory still fuzzy, is uncertain. Her husband is waiting, the three stones tell her. “That’s a stranger,” she answers: And when you think about it, wasn’t Orpheus, wrapped in his art, always a kind of stranger to this thoughtful woman?

After she has died a second time, Eurydice writes a sisterly letter to Orpheus’ future wife, giving de Niese a poignantly fragile final aria. Aucoin’s music lifts her vocal lines while shimmering tremulously in the background. Here this still-young, extravagantly gifted composer grabbed the dramatic moment and met it with energy and originality. If only he had done so more often.



‘Eurydice’

Through Feb. 23 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles; laopera.org.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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