It’s still the same old story, a search for love and glory. Okay, so I paraphrased it. To hear playwright Sarah Ruhl and composer Matthew Aucoin tell it, Orpheus (Joshua Hopkins) is a god when he is creating music, but uncommunicative while wooing Eurydice (Danielle de Niese). She is certain she likes the good parts of him, but could make a few improvements. You know, get him to communicate more. We do not know her part of the story because in all the retellings of their myth it has always been from the point of view of Orpheus. It is 2020, time to hear the myth from Eurydice’s point of view.
The curtain rises with the couple frolicking with a large beach ball on a sun soaked beach. He playfully ties a ring around her finger, her ring finger. Is this a proposal? If so, yes, but she would like him to be more forthcoming in the future, not always have his head in the music. Talk to her. It is a tale of mythic and contemporary proportions.
Of course her efforts at perfecting Orpheus are incomplete in time for the wedding ceremony. We can assume this will be a lifelong project. One sad note in the ceremony is that her father recently died so he is not there to share the day. Guests are dressed as though Dior has just released the New Look. The orchestra, under composer Matthew Aucoin, is bright and festive. The choreography by Denis Jones is both with, and independent of, the celebratory music. It is a lovely effect all around.
Eurydice steps away to get a glass of water and is lured off to a penthouse by the slime ball, Hades (Barry Banks) who promises he has a letter from her father. From there things go from bad to worse. It also grows more preposterous, as is the way of myths and operas. As she resists Hades’ advances Eurydice falls down many stairs to her death, ultimately descending by elevator — wherein she has been showered by the river that causes memory loss — to the underworld. You do not need to re-read that; it makes no sense. It is just the way it is.
Eurydice is greeted by a trio of stones (Stacey Tappan, Raehann Bryce-Davis, and Kevin Ray) who explain the situation she is in: the river, expressed as a rain shower; the memory loss, etc. The stones as clothed and made up by Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic, look as though they may have come from the Red Queen’s chess match. Although they seem to have walked out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland they make more sense than the story line. Their music, their movements, their appearance, their explanations, their humor are high points whenever they appear.
Because she has an umbrella in the elevator, Eurydice is only dampened by the river and retains some shades of memory and of language which would otherwise have been washed away. She mistakes her father (tenderly played by Rod Gilfry) for the bellman. Her father managed to sequester a pen into the underworld and has been writing letters to her. He has, to this point, managed to stay dry and thus retain language and memory. Slowly and gently he brings her to recognize him and regain language, finally reading her the letters Orpheus has sent her. He ultimately explains the second chance she is being given to live again, following Orpheus from the underworld with the caveat Orpheus cannot look back at her. Of course on the journey out of the underworld she yells out Orpheus’ name and he turns around so she dies again. Meanwhile, her father succumbs to the river, portrayed as a shower, and he dies. She joins her father in the shower. Dr. Freud, where are you?
The story is from MacArthur Fellow playwright, Sara Ruhl’s 2003 play of the same name. She and MacArthur Fellow Matthew Aucoin whittled down the dialogue by 40% for the libretto. As it stands it is not clear that the story is significantly more modern than any of the previous iterations of Orpheus and Eurydice. Although Eurydice has more stage time, her character lacks agency or strength. Not having seen the off Broadway play, I cannot say for sure, but perhaps some of what was cut would have made the story more coherent.
What shines is Aucoin’s instrumental line. Filled with creative percussion and a broad range of color, the orchestral score soars. It is capable of standing alone. The vocal line is less developed. Rarely is it as interesting as the orchestra underlying the singers. A strange example is Orpheus’ Double (John Holiday). His tenor voice joins Baritone Orpheus when Orpheus is in godly mode. Not that you would divine this without reading the program notes.
The vast Chandler stage is used to good effect in the opening beach scene, but the underworld with its occasional elevators is strangely underpopulated. Why have the chorus off set when they could be populating the space? Vocally, though absent, they fill the space.
So where does this leave us? It is still the same old story, with some confusing symbolism and restructuring. But don’t let that deter you. The orchestral score on its own is magnificent. This is the premier of this joint LA Opera/ Metropolitan Opera production so more may be tweaked.