By Bob Bernard
The world premiere of LA Opera’s [LAO] production of Eurydice is set for February 1, 2020. The composer Matthew Aucoin, LAO’s first Resident Artist and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, will conduct. The librettist is Sarah Ruhl, who is adapting her own 2003 play of the same name.
Maestro Aucoin, an advocate of the development of American opera as a native art form, conducted LAO productions of Rigoletto (2018) and Akhnaten (2016), as well as concert performances of his own opera Crossing (2018). In the 2014/15 season, he conducted the premieres of Crossing at Boston’s American Repertory Theater, and Second Nature, a chamber opera of his for the young, at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Violinist Jennifer Koh, remembered here as the featured soloist in Einstein on the Beach, will premiere Aucoin’s new solo violin work at the New York Philharmonic Biennale and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
The premiere’s libretto will draw heavily upon playwright Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice (2003), written while a graduate student at Brown University. Ruhl adapted the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to modern times, telling the story from the perspective of Eurydice.
The play examines the power of love between both husband and wife and between father and daughter, capturing the pain of loss, the lessening of pain over time, and the necessity of forgetting.
Beginning with the play’s cast formulation, derivative references follow, beginning with Greek mythology and continuing through Mozart’s Don Giovanni, George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Holy Scripture, and Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan.
The Greek myth’s pairing of Orpheus and Eurydice is augmented, adding what Mozart’s plunging Don Giovanni into Hell inspired George Bernard Shaw to write, viz: A subdivision of Act 3 of Shaw’s 1903 drama Man and Superman, entitled Don Juan in Hell. This transports the characters of Don Juan, Donna Anna [Ana], and Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore [a.k.a. The Statue] to Hell. There, with the Devil stirring the pot, this makes for ninety-seven minutes of scintillating entertainment wherein the relative merits of Heaven and Hell are debated.
The cast of the 1952 stage production, always performed in evening dress:
A sample from the play of Shaw’s disparaging his fellow Brits:
“But the English really do not seem to know when they are miserable. An Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable.”
So, comparing the cast lists for these two plays:
|Don Juan in Hell
| Don Juan
||Father of Eurydice
||Lord of the Underworld
The play Eurydice has three additional characters: Big Stone, Little Stone, and Loud Stone. These come into play as principals encounter certain of the Underworld’s five rivers: As Orpheus arrives at the gates of the Underworld and crosses Acheron, the “river of woe”, the Stones echo his sorrow and, later, as Eurydice’s father laments the second loss of his daughter, the Stones, now adjoining Cocytus, the “river of lamentation” imitate his grief. These “stone-related” actions bring to mind the Old Testament reference from Habakkuk 2:11:
“For the stones will cry out from the wall, and the rafters will echo it from the woodwork.”
In the first act, Eurydice’s dead father attempts to send her a letter. (This brings to mind Nietzsche’s use of the phrase “a telephone from the beyond”.) Then, in an analogous circumstance to Lewis Carroll’s Alice falling down a rabbit hole, Eurydice enters the Underworld by falling down a flight of stairs.
Eurydice’s subsequent absurdist happenings compare to Alice’s adventures in her Wonderland: Alice has her Mad Tea Party and Queen’s croquet match; Eurydice is rained upon while being transported inside an elevator and has her father build a room out of string for her:
For Crossing, Maestro Aucoin’s music gave voice to Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”. Whitman’s advocacy for living a meaningful life is stated assertively in the poem’s concluding lines:
“You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.”
Now, composing for Sarah Ruhl’s play – and even with the overall direction of this opera reoriented to be from Eurydice’s point of view - Aucoin has what he calls “The Orphic Moment” in reserve as something that reflects a selfish circumstance of Orpheus. Composed originally in 2014 for countertenor, violin and orchestra, Aucoin posed this situation in an interview for the Music Academy of the West:
- Orpheus, the world’s greatest singer, covets the opportunity to – once again – be able to sing gorgeous music of lamentation, so
- While escorting Eurydice back to Earth, he decides to bring about Eurydice’s second death, selecting the exact moment at which to look back and execute this cold-blooded scheme.
Still, this opera’s primary message remains as expressing the pain of familial loss, the lessening of this pain over time, and the mixed blessing of ultimate memory loss.
Hollace Starr, director of Pepperdine's 2017 production of Eurydice, shared her own (very) personal experience:
“My father’s funeral was on my 3rd birthday. I seem to remember the day and looking out at a crowd of sad people. I do remember the embarrassment I felt when, at 7, I confessed to my brother and mother that I didn’t remember my father’s name. I am grateful for this strange, beautiful play, where fathers and daughters can be together again.”
The closing scene of the play finds Orpheus coming upon the bodies of Eurydice and her father, now embedded in sleep, being overcome with forgetfulness. Orpheus, having also bathed in the memory-purging waters of the Underworld’s River Lethe, stands static and uncomprehending.
The play’s ending is in accord with the final bars of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan (as described by music critic Alex Ross):
“an upward-scuttling scale of the violins, a quiet drum roll, hollow chords in scattered instruments, three thumps, and …” …
In the final words of Prince Hamlet:
The Rest is Silence