What does it sound like when you’re dead?
“There are strange high-pitched noises,” a character in Sarah Ruhl’s play “Eurydice” writes to his daughter, who is still in the land of the living, “like a teakettle always boiling over.”
Slippery, curdling tones, as if you were hearing sour milk being poured, score our first visit to the underworld in Ruhl and the composer Matthew Aucoin’s teeming, wearying adaptation of the 2003 play, which had its Metropolitan Opera premiere on Tuesday.
Ruhl and Aucoin’s ambition, to offer a contemporary vision of the story of Orpheus and his attempt to rescue his wife from oblivion, resonates to the very origins of this art form. Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice,” from 1600, is the earliest surviving opera, and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” written a few years later, is the earliest still regularly performed. Orpheus operas clutter the next four centuries; Luigi Rossi’s gorgeous 1647 version had a rare production at the Juilliard School earlier this month.
It’s not surprising that a tale about the greatest musician in history, a man who could make the very stones weep when he performed, keeps appealing to his descendants. The scenario offers composers a wedding party, a tragic death, an evocation of what lies beyond, an attempt at resurrection, a plangent lament — opportunities to shine, and to place themselves in a grand tradition.
Aucoin, 31, doesn’t shy from taking on this lineage. His score is massive and assertive, but agile; it keeps moving, endlessly eclectic, but unified by a muscular grip on the pace, and played with tireless vitality by the Met Orchestra under the company’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The sheer scale of Aucoin’s music is luxurious, but it never luxuriates for long, always rushing on to the next, different thing — as if, for all its splendor, it was afraid of losing our attention. A pummeling restlessness that evokes John Adams shares the manuscript with softly glistening bells; a riff on elevator-music bossa nova, with batteries of raucous percussion.
The dancing at Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding, a hint of pop music glimpsed through ominous shadows, is a little jewel. Hades, the god of the underworld who tempts her to her destruction, is a screechingly high tenor (here Barry Banks, relishing the extremity).
Orpheus (the baritone Joshua Hopkins) has a double (the countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski, in his Met debut). Down in hell, the recently dead are overseen by a trio of those weeping stones (Ronnita Miller, Chad Shelton and Stacey Tappan, all vivid). Unlike in most Orpheus operas, the main aria here goes to Eurydice (the soprano Erin Morley), gently bemoaning the pain of loving an artist: “Inside his head there is always something more beautiful.” Near the end, an effusion of Puccinian warmth yields to yet more punchy percussion, then a fanfaring pastiche of the Handelian Baroque before the work’s grimly quiet conclusion. A chorus chants offstage.
It’s all a lot; it can feel like too much. Plain-spoken yet poetic, Ruhl’s play is the kind in which a scene is devoted simply to Eurydice’s father creating a room for her out of string — about the most heartbreakingly delicate act you can imagine. But Aucoin gives the sequence an orchestral accompaniment of Wagnerian grandeur, rising to a pitched climax, as if the father had just built Valhalla.
And not long before that passage comes a similarly jarring instrumental interlude with the bruising intensity of something out of Berg’s “Wozzeck.” Later, as Orpheus emerges from the underworld — instructed, sigh, not to look back at his wife, who’s following him — a cacophony of drumming and brass makes the moment feel less appropriately dramatic than simply bullied.
Opera feeds on too-muchness, of course, and the Orpheus myth is life-or-death stuff, not undeserving of big, fervent music. But given Ruhl’s winsome treatment, the resulting sensation is of Aucoin’s music swamping the story, rather than guiding and being guided by it. You take in the plot, but feel too overwhelmed to feel.
A surfeit of scoring was also a problem in Aucoin’s last opera, the turgid “Crossing” (2015), about Walt Whitman during the Civil War. He wrote that libretto; thanks to Ruhl’s lucidity, “Eurydice,” first heard in February 2020 at Los Angeles Opera, is a clearer, stronger work. Her play, written a few years after her father’s death, added a twist, grafting onto the traditional myth a story about a parent and child grieving their distance.
This structure puts much more focus than usual on Eurydice, the conjunction of these romantic and familial strands. But at the Met there is a misty blank at the center of the work: Morley, in a role that dominates the music and action, has a voice that is poised and precise — and so slender as to be almost inaudible for much of the opera. (Aucoin’s dense scoring doesn’t help, but she has problems being heard even in transparent moments.) There are artists with small instruments that nevertheless penetrate the vast Met; Morley’s does only in its highest notes.
As a result, we never feel sufficiently compelled by her; it’s a reminder that the emotional impact of operatic characters emerges from singers’ vocal presences. It is easy to like this Eurydice, her presence sweet yet unsentimental, but it is hard to care about her as much as we must. Her love for Orpheus, her recognition of her father (the sober bass-baritone Nathan Berg), her fear and her maturation — we know these things are happening, but none of them really come to life.
Aucoin and Ruhl have interpolated some unnecessary cuteness into a play already tipping toward twee. At the gates of hell, the stones instruct Orpheus not to sing there “unless you sing in a dead language” — so Hopkins and Orlinski duly start intoning Latin, in a parody of medieval plainchant.
The countertenor double feels like the kind of idea that gets embraced at a brainstorming session. It’s true, the sound of Orlinski’s luminous voice making a halo around Hopkins’s robust lower lines can be quite pretty.
But it’s a muddle figuring out what the double is doing onstage, particularly in Mary Zimmerman’s production, which gives him tiny angel wings but also has him often appear shirtless and brooding. Is he Orpheus’s trainer? His id? His creative side? A clever musical effect ends up clogging the drama. (Coincidentally, Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened the Met’s season, also included a baritone’s high-pitched double, but with clearer dramaturgy: a boy soprano representing the main character’s younger self.)
Zimmerman’s blandly fantastical “Eurydice” staging efficiently depicts the action — the elevator down to hell; the shower that makes the dead forget their lives; the looming, pocked walls of the underworld — but lacks magic and sparkle. (The stones, monumentally caked gray beings, are charming; Ana Kuzmanic is the costume designer.) One relief: The text is projected as it’s sung onto Daniel Ostling’s set, letting the audience focus fully on the action.
“Eurydice” is most moving as a symbol of a shift in the Met’s artistic priorities. If you had said just a few years ago that the company’s music director would be conducting two recent American operas — this and “Fire” — in two months, no one would have believed you. Pandemic reshuffling made that happen, but Nézet-Séguin said in a recent interview that the past year and a half has left him newly committed to maintaining that pace and personally leading a pair of contemporary works each season.
Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s eerie 2017 adaptation of “Hamlet” arrives in the spring. Premieres by Kevin Puts, Missy Mazzoli, Mason Bates, Jeanine Tesori and others are on the horizon, as are overlooked works of the past few decades, like Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.”
What a time to be on this side of the underworld.
Through Dec. 16 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.