World Premiere Review: Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” at the Los Angeles Opera, February 1, 2020

The Los Angeles Opera joined the New York Metropolitan Opera in commissioning a new opera, “Eurydice”, based on a play by poet-dramatist Sarah Ruhl. The opera’s music was composed by the Los Angeles Opera’s resident artist, Maestro Matthew Aucoin.

Danielle De Niese as Eurydice

Australian mezzo-soprano Danielle De Niese led a stellar group of artists for the world premiere at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Throughout history, the Orpheus myth has only fragmentary information about the singer’s wife Eurydice, but in Ruhl’s libretto Eurydice’s character and motivations are at the story’s center.

As Eurydice, De Niese created a striking portrait of an emotionally conflicted woman, attempting to establish a new relationship with Orpheus, while grieving for her recently deceased father.

[Below: Eurydice (Danielle De Niese) takes an elevator down to the Underworld; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

De Niese’s performance was vocally resplendent and dramatically persuasive. Aucoin’s vocal lines favored the attractive upper part of De Niese’s vocal range.

For my interview with Danielle De Niese, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 2. For my reviews of De Niese in the title role of a Handel opera, see: Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2014 and A Second Look: “Partenope” at the San Francisco Opera – October 24, 2014.

Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins had the unique distinction of playing the physical Orpheus while sharing his performance of the living Orpheus with the counter-tenor John Holiday. At times Hopkins’ Orpheus is Eurydice’s high-spirited, red-blooded fiancé, the lovers playing with a giant beach ball. At other times Hopkins and Holiday sing together, Holiday representing Orpheus’ thoughts. The otherworldly sound of their duets invokes the legends of Orpheus, the singer who charms the gods.

[Below: Joshua Hopkins as Eurydice’s husband, Orpheus; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

For my interview with Joshua Hopkins, see: Rising Stars – Interview with Baritone Joshua Hopkins. For my review of a recent Hopkins performance, see: Review: Hopkins, Norman and Burdette in a Beauty of a “Billy Budd”- Central City Opera, July 21, 2019.

Rod Gilfry as Eurydice’s Father

Ruhl’s play, on which her libretto is based, was created during a period in which Ruhl was mourning the death of her father. In Ruhl’s story Eurydice’s deceased Father, wishing to reconnect with his living daughter, purposely avoids the memory-erasing waters that to which the Underworld dead are routinely subjected. It is her Father’s post-mortem letter that leads Eurydice to her journey into the Underworld.

The role was performed with convincing authority by California bass-baritone Rod Gilfry.

[Below: Rod Gilfry as Eurydice’s Father; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

For my review of a recent Gilfry performance, see: Review: “Cosi Fan Tutte” – World Class Singing, Deconstructed Staging – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2019.

Barry Banks as Hades

British tenor Barry Banks as Hades represented the demonic forces of the Underworld. Banks’ distinctive tenor and his flair for offbeat and macabre comedy makes him a superb choice for character roles. This is particularly evident in his portrayal of Hades, who in the final scenes negotiates the stage as a super-tall presence.

[Below: Hades (Barry Banks, le’ft) explains to Eurydice (Danielle De Niese, right) that she is to remain in the Underworld and to become his wife; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

For my review of a recent Banks performance, see: Review: Opera Philadelphia’s Richly Melodic, Laugh-filled “Love for Three Oranges” – September 20, 2019.

John Holiday as Orpheus’ double and other cast members

Aucoin created an ethereal sound for Orpheus’ singing, by pairing the baritone and countertenor voices. For the world premiere, Joshua Hopkins’ lyric baritone was beautifully matched with the haunting sound of Texas countertenor John Holiday.

[Below: John Holiday as Orpheus’ double performs the top part of Orpheus’ voice; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

For my review of Holiday in the title role of a Handel opera, see: Review: An Elegantly Performed Glimmerglass Festival “Xerxes” – July 15, 2017.

As three of the Underworld’s bureaucrats, New York tenor Kevin Ray was Loud Stone, Texas mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis was Big Stone, and California soprano Stacey Tappan was Little Stone. They sang well, and made arresting impressions as three of most bizarre characters to take the operatic stage.

[Below: from left to right, Kevin Ray as Loud Stone, Raehann Bryce-Davis as Big Stone and Stacey Tappan as Little Stone; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Maestro Matthew Aucoin and the Musical Performance

An opera composed by a 29-year old that has secured a world premiere at the Los Angeles Opera and a promise of a premiere at the New York Metropolitan in a future season is extraordinary. It seems assured that Matthew Aucoin will have an important career as an opera composer over the succeeding decades.

Aucoin’s compositional style is through-composed, rhythmically vivid, and lushly orchestrated. Whether or not this particular opera – “Eurydice” – enters the performance repertory long-term (it’s immediate prospects are secure, but only a handful of operas are ultimately successful), I predict that Aucoin will be one of the composers that produces successful American operas to take their place in the standard repertory.

[Below: Composer and Conductor Maestro Matthew Aucoin; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

Maestro Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Opera’s resident conductor, was Chorus Master.

Librettist Sarah Ruhl‘s Libretto

In the history of the Orpheus myth, very little is known about the character of Orpheus’ wife Eurydice. Ruhl, centering her play and libretto on the character of Eurydice, has raised fascinating issues.

The idea of liebestod has been a central theme of opera through the centuries, but the mechanisms by which Ruhl and Aucoin have addressed go beyond the traditional operatic final duets at a character’s death. “Eurydice” tackles the processes that accompany loss of a loved one – such specific themes as reacquaintance with the departed and disappearing memories.

[Below: Sarah Ruhl; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

For me, who has watched a person close to me succumbing to the ravages of dementia, Ruhl’s play and libretto has a special meaning. The play abounds in references to memory (starting with the string that Orpheus ties around Eurydice’s finger representing a promised ring, but also conjuring the idea of remembrance). The Underworld is a place designed to wipe one’s memories. To the loved ones watching the process, a person’s memories fade, perhaps briefly revive when thoughts of long ago are prompted, but ultimately vanish.

Director Mary Zimmerman, and Designers Dan Ostling and Ana Kuzmanic

Dramatist-librettist Ruhl has remarked that, rather than specify how her work should be presented, she encourages imagination in the staging of “Eurydice”. Illinois director Mary Zimmerman, in collaboration with Taiwanese Scenery Designer Daniel Ostling and Croatian Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic, has created a visually stunning production.

[Below: Director Mary Zimmerman; edited image of a publicity photograph.]


The imaginative story settigs include romping on a beach, elevators to the Underworld filled with memory-erasing rain and talking stones.

[Below: Eurydice (Danielle De Niese, left) throws a beach ball to Orpheus (Joshua Hopkins, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Recommendation

I recommend the Los Angeles Opera production of “Eurydice” for its strong cast, lively production, and the likelihood that one is viewing an early work of a talented American operatic composer, still in the early stages of what will be an important career.

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