Sunday 19 December 2021

Aucoin - Eurydice (New York, 2021)

Matthew Aucoin - Eurydice

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2021

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mary Zimmerman, Erin Morley, Joshua Hopkins, Jakub Józef Orliński, Barry Banks, Nathan Berg, Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, Chad Shelton, Lianne Coble-Dispensa

The Met: Live in HD - 4th December 2021

The Met have got off to a good start this year as far as the Live in HD series goes. The rest of the season doesn't seem quite as ambitious but the choice of casts, new productions and interesting directors mean that there is something of interest in most of the remainder of the season. They have chosen well and made some brave choices in the support of new music, seeking to keep opera alive and forging new ground, as seen in the last livestream of Terence Blanchard's brilliant Fire Shut Up In my Bones. I was keen then to see what Matthew Aucoin could deliver, despite having no previous familiarity with his music and despite expecting it to be a little more conventional. That turns out to be true to some extent, but musically and dramatically Eurydice does nonetheless manage to expand on one of the classic works of ancient mythology most closely associated with opera.

The title suggests a feminist reworking of the Orpheus myth, but rather than taking a revisionist spin, Eurydice is actually more of an extension of the myth; a look at it from a different personal, human and modern perspective. Not unlike the extension of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in Errollyn Wallen's Dido's Ghost, it manages to deepen an understanding of the issues the work touches upon, making it more relevant to contemporary concerns without undermining the essence of what makes it universal, timeless and meaningful. There are many questions that the traditional myth provokes and directions to explore - some more relevant than others perhaps, and not all of them need explained  - but certainly it helps to consider how Eurydice might have felt about it all.

There's not a great deal gained however by the rather banal happy opening scene of Orpheus and Eurydice on a beach. It's an engagement scene, Orpheus however slightly distracted and detached from it all by his art. It's probably necessary for setting context and to provide a little more light and shade (unlike the benchmark Gluck version that launches straight into a scene of grief and mourning). But more than just giving Eurydice a life as opposed to being dead throughout, this version also takes time to round out the character and nature of Orpheus as a man of considerable sensitivity, even if his way of expressing his love for Eurydice is a little awkward, reliant upon, distracted by and pretty much secondary to his devotion - an apparently much greater devotion - to music.

That isn't perhaps the whole story and Aucoin finds an interesting way of exploring this for a little more nuance, using a double for Orpheus. The use of doubles is not uncommon in opera productions where there are characters of great complexity with different facets to their personality, conflicts of personal life and duty, facets that are often revealed only in the music. In a stage production that's usually done using a silent mirror actor or a dancer, but here in Eurydice, Orpheus is written as two singing voices. One of the most complex characters of semi-divine nature, Orpheus surely merits such an approach, his duality represented here by a shadow countertenor Orpheus with wings. Described only as a double in the cast list, he could be seen to be Orpheus's ever-present muse, or just simply a personification of his musicality.

This role is however so well-written and performed that it opens up a whole range of other interpretations and possibilities. For me, it seemed that rather than appear detached and distracted by his thoughts constantly turning towards music, that music is rather an expression of his love and that the two really are inseparable. Indeed the warning is frequently made - by the three stones in the Underworld and by Hades himself - that Singing is not welcome in Hell. There can be no better expression of the capacity of music and opera to express the deepest workings and sentiments of the human heart, elevating them into something greater, so it is no surprise that Love - in its personification or expression of Orpheus's music - is banned in Hell. That is brilliantly realised here.

But the opera is called Eurydice and indeed Eurydice is still the principal figure in this opera. The rather banal happy scene on the beach out of the way, Sarah Ruhl's libretto - adapted from her own original play - delves a little deeper into the psychology of Eurydice. That doesn't necessarily need to be represented in any dull naturalistic manner either and there are various imaginative representations evoked in the situation developed by Ruhl. Hades himself tries to lure Eurydice to the Underworld on her wedding day, but although she suspects his motives, the delivery of a from her dead father in the Underworld has turned her thoughts to him. The idea of speaking to him and seeing him once again weakens her resolve and leaves her vulnerable.

As an opera about love, about grief, bereavement and about the unseemly and dangerous transgression of indulging in grief to the neglect of the living, Eurydice hits all the key points, but it deepens and extends those ideas, making them a little more upfront and present to an audience. It does this as I've suggested, in an imaginative way while still holding close to the outline of the original myth, and in a way that touches on a greater range of emotions. With certain surreal elements like three speaking stones and a room made of string (we are dealing after all with experiences outside of normal human experience), and with humour in places, it shares a similar sensibility in its use of imagery and symbolism with Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Musically the shadow of Richard Strauss isn't far away either, particularly evident in the beautiful aria at the close of Act II, 'This is what it means to love an artist'. On a first listen, and not being at all familiar with this relatively young composer, Aucoin's music seems to occupy a space somewhere between Richard Strauss and Philip Glass. There was however a much greater variety of musical styles and references in the use of melodies, themes and rhythms. It doesn't draw attention to itself but with little showiness or reliance on sweeping romanticism it still manages to find an appropriate way to give expression to those deep sentiments, indeed without unseemly indulgence.

You could say the same about the singing. Erin Morley is exceptionally good as Eurydice. Aucoin has developed strong, beautifully lyrical writing for the voice, making it a demanding role for the range and stamina required to be present on stage almost throughout. I loved Barry Banks's performance and singing as Hades, which is likewise challenging, even higher than his usual light tenor range. We had beautifully complementary Orpheuses in Joshua Hopkins and Jakub Józef Orliński as the double/music and a grave sympathetic father in Nathan Berg. Really there was much to enjoy in very performance, including Big Stone, Little Stone and Loud Stone. Yannick Nézet-Séguin clearly relished working with a new and interesting score and it came across exceptionally well in the livestream cinema broadcast. 

First staged by LA Opera in 2020, Mary Zimmerman's production transfers over for the Met's fine decision to bring this worthy work to a wider audience. The sets presented an imaginative response to the situations devised by Ruhl, keeping the Underworld dark, enclosed and detached from everyday reality in a simple and effective way, enhancing it where necessary a little box insert or elevator raised from below the stage for side scenes and as a creative way to evoke the river of forgetfulness Lethe, critical to the tragic conclusion. With superb costume design, the musical, singing, dramatic and visual aspects of the production ensured that this was a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful account of a fine new opera work.

Links: Metropolitan OperaThe Met: Live in HD 2021-22 season

Saturday 11 December 2021

Maxwell Davies - The Lighthouse (Dublin, 2021)

Peter Maxwell Davies - The Lighthouse

Irish National Opera, Dublin - 2021

Elaine Kelly, Edwina Casey, Gavan Ring, Ben McAteer, John Molloy

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 3rd December 2021

Following the cultural wipeout of 2020-21 seasons everywhere, there were clearly still going to be challenges in 2021-22 for the Irish National Opera. As we now approach the end of 2021, the near future still remains unknown and precarious. The INO however seem to have built contingency into their season but - much as they did with their filmed 20 Shots of Opera last year - there was no playing safe in the choice of Peter Maxwell Davies chamber opera The Lighthouse; a challenging work at the best of times.

An ambitious aim also to take it out on tour, but just in case, the production was designed to work as a filmed piece that could also be taken out, somewhat appropriately, to the remotest of locations in Ireland where opera never reaches, subsequently followed by a tour of live performances. Having no remit to take their productions to Northern Ireland (if only), it was still worth the journey to Dublin on the day that an announcement was made of further restrictions to be put into place as concern grows about the potential spread.of the Omicron variant of Covid.

Such is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on society and the arts that it is inevitable that it is going to affect how we view a performance of any opera now (and probably for years to come). Not that Maxwell Davies's opera needed any assistance to consider the fragility of the human psyche and the detrimental affects that of being locked in isolation while danger lurks outside, but there's no doubt that there was a heightened awareness of the reality. The efforts to put a little space between us and our seated mask-wearing neighbours perhaps brought an added frisson to the work's eerie account of three lighthouse workers living in close proximity who mysteriously disappear or succumb to the horrors of imposed isolation.

Based on a true story, there is however little of anything factual really to go on in consideration of what might have happened to the three lighthouse men. The less you have to work with however the more you have to imagine, and when it comes to the workings of the human mind, anything is possible. Whether you seek to find a rational explanation or probe for something supernatural, there are a whole lot of other factors that you can imagine lie between three men living in close proximity to each other in strained circumstances. The way that Peter Maxwell Davies chooses to explore these tensions in a lyrical setting is certainly imaginative and creative.

The composer takes the first part of the opera to set the scene, placing it in a courtroom, establishing that there is nothing about what the relief wardens encounter when they arrive on the island can definitively be established as fact. The little details and differences in their testimonies might or might not be significant, and that can only contribute to the mystery. Adding to the ambiguity of the work, the same three performers singing the roles of the relief team become the three missing men as the remainder of the opera explores the tensions of three men of very different character living in close quarters with each other.

Sandy, Blazes and Arthur are indeed very different in nature and temperament. Blazes and Arthur are argumentative, one we discover has experienced a violent family life and background, the other a religious fundamentalist. Sandy sets out to describe a more romanticised view of his own background, as each of the men sing a song to describe their lives, but Sandy's song is corrupted by the other men joining in with a cut and mix of the three verses of the song. It's very clever in its wordplay, but in it's musical construction, each man having their own set of instruments associated with them, it's also representative of the way that they conflict in their interaction.

In his pre-performance talk before the Dublin performances, the INO's musical director Fergus Sheil seemed to be just relating a lot of the plot, but there is a good reason for that. The music and the instrumentation employed are deeply intertwined with what takes place in the opera - even more so in a chamber opera than in most traditional opera, or at least in a different way. Maxwell Davies's music here is hugely expressive of character and nuance, as well as atmosphere, creating musical as well as character tensions.

The stage (and film version) director Edwina Casey also sought to highlight the tensions of the situation in the simple but claustrophobic set with occasional flows of eerie dry ice effects to contribute to the sense of isolation and creeping tensions. Sinéad Wallace's lighting also contributed hugely to the mood. The singing of the three roles by Gavan Ring, Ben McAteer and John Molloy was superb. All of these roles have very challenging ranges for a tenor, baritone and bass, and although relatively short, with only three singers singing the whole 70 minutes of the opera, it can be intense and demanding.

Most effective of all was the music and playing of the Irish National Opera Orchestra on a diverse array of chamber orchestra instruments. The playing was outstanding under the conducting of Elaine Kelly, all the more evident when you seeing and hearing the individual players tackling the idiosyncrasies of the score in close quarters. The sound they managed to bring to individual, duo playing and as an ensemble was stunning, creating a cacophony of terror and madness in the confines of the O'Reilly theatre.

Whether it's a ghost story or a character study or a human study, The Lighthouse does have many layers that can be drawn out and explored, suggesting that if there is a mystery there, it's the mystery of the nature of humans and their relationship to their environment and other people. The spoken and musical refrain that "it is all automatic now" perhaps suggests that while it might eliminate some human stresses, technology might bring its own problems with human alienation. There's a balance to be struck there, but as current circumstances show, it's not always something that is within our control.

Links: Irish National Opera