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YESTERDAY WE ENCOUNTERED the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and its Gluck Opera. Today in Part 2, we see a Don’t Look Back 2.1 variation and an envisioning from Eurydice’s point of view in 3.0.
Don’t Look Back 2.1. In her book A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera, Vivien Schweitzer writes about “a tradition in the late nineteenth century of operatic parody,” sort of a precursor to Anna Russell’s witty exposition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. One of Schweitzer’s examples is Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).
Schweitzer writes, “… in his version, Orpheus and Eurydice hate each other, and when Eurydice is bitten by the snake, she happily goes to the underworld to be with her lover, Pluto. Orpheus is glad to be rid of her, but a character called ‘Public Opinion’ admonishes him that he must rescue her.”
Wikipedia describes this parody: “As with the standard myth, Orphée must not look back, or he will lose Eurydice forever (‘Ne regarde pas en arrière!’). Public Opinion keeps a close eye on him, to keep him from cheating, but Jupiter throws a lightning bolt, making him jump and look back, and Eurydice vanishes. Amid the ensuing turmoil, Jupiter proclaims that she will henceforth belong to the god Bacchus and become one of his priestesses. Public Opinion is not pleased, but Pluton has had enough of Eurydice, Orphée is free of her, and all ends happily.”
Offenbach even parodies music from the Gluck version, sorta an SNL takedown. And in both the overture and finale, he works in The Can Can.
Don’t Look Back 3.0.. Wikipedia writes, “Eurydice is an opera composed by Matthew Aucoin with a libretto by Sarah Ruhl based on her 2003 play of the same name. It had its premiere at the Los Angeles Opera on February 1, 2020, with Aucoin conducting. It was scheduled to receive its Metropolitan Opera premiere in November 2020, but was postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Indeed, Daughter Suz and I saw this new opera on Saturday, December 4, 2021, as part of the Met’s Live in HD 2021–2022 season. As the Met described, “… the opera reimagines the familiar tale from Eurydice’s point of view.”
The Met offers a detailed synopsis: In Act I, newly married Eurydice misses her deceased father; nor is she completely sold on Orpheus’s (and his alter-ego’s) musical fixations. She encounters a stranger, who turns out to be Hades, whose height, horns and tail grow more pronounced as the opera evolves. Eurydice falls to her death into the Underworld.
Act II: Eurydice arrives in the Underworld by an elevator in which rain erases her memory. It’s a neat theatrical conceit of the original tale’s River Styx. She meets her father, who has avoided the water and, thus, retains his memory. At first, she doesn’t recognize him, though she does later.
The Three Stones serve as bureaucratic guardians of the Underworld. And, indeed, when they later hear Orpheus’s mournful pleas, the Three Stones weep.
Act III: Hades explains the deal to Orpheus. Eurydice is torn between following Orpheus or staying with her father. She decides to follow Orpheus, calls his name—inevitably Orpheus turns around—and the two lovers are slowly pulled apart.
Eurydice’s father is desolate and he chooses to invoke forgetfulness, this time in a bathroom shower. (This sounds corny, but like the Three Stones’ tears, the operatic conceit is effective.)
Eurydice finds a pen in her father’s coat and writes Orpheus a letter containing instructions to his future wife on how to care for him. She then pulls the shower cord on herself.
The Met’s synopsis concludes: “The elevator descends once again. In it is Orpheus. He sees Eurydice lying on the ground. He recognizes her and is happy. But the elevator rains on Orpheus, obliterating his memory. He steps out of the elevator. He finds the letter Eurydice wrote to him. He does not know how to read it.”
Don’t Look Back 3.0 is closer to the Greek myth than those of the second iteration, yet it’s also iconoclastic in its own wacky operatic way. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
The aria Che faro sensa Euridyce in the Gluck version is my favorite of all time.
A correction: I misidentified the river of forgetfulness. It was actually the River Lethe, one of five rivers separating Earth from the Underworld. The other four are the Acheron (over which Charon ferries folks), Cocytus (the river of wailing), Phlegethon (the flaming river), and the Styx (where Romans had Charon do his thing). Some think the Styx provides invulnerability. Achilles’ mother bathed him in the Styx, everything but his heels, of course.