When Orpheus turned around to look at Eurydice during the closing performance of Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” at the Metropolitan Opera, the audience’s collective gasp seemed to shake the grand theater. I recalled another time I heard such a gasp: from the character of Eurydice near the end of “Doubt Comes In,” a song in the Broadway musical “Hadestown.” Then, too, the audience gasped along with her.
A lifelong classics nerd, I was surprised both times by the reaction: Does the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice really require a spoiler alert?
The myth has been kicking around for over two millenniums, after all. Orpheus, the greatest musician of all, marries Eurydice, who dies when she’s bitten by a snake on their wedding day. He descends to the underworld, where the god of the dead offers him another chance at love: He can leave with Eurydice, but only if he walks ahead and never turns around. Here’s that spoiler: Orpheus looks, and Eurydice is damned to Hades forever.
For such an old — and short — story, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is still frequently told and adapted, much like that of another famous ill-fated couple, Romeo and Juliet. Operatic renditions by Monteverdi and others date back to the early 1600s. Renowned filmmakers like Jean Cocteau created their own narratives in the 20th century.
In 1922, Rainer Maria Rilke used the tragic story as a launchpad for his deeply ruminative 55-poem cycle “Sonnets to Orpheus.” Countless other poets have followed suit, many revising the myth to give its sad dead wife a voice — perhaps in a contemporary vernacular, as in Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice,” or in the measured verse and elevated diction of A.E. Stallings’ “Eurydice’s Footnote.”
And of course there’s Ruhl herself, who created a revisionist mythology in her 2003 play “Eurydice,” which she adopted into the opera’s libretto.
Modern-day adaptations like “Hadestown” and “Eurydice” reveal more than just the imaginations of their creators; they reflect a gender politics that gets to the core of how men and women are mythologized, who has agency and whose stories are most valued.
Let’s face it: Orpheus has always been the star of the myth. Eurydice is simply the young bride. She has no background and no future; she only serves as the vehicle of tragedy for Orpheus.
Both “Hadestown” and “Eurydice” interrogate that starring role. In both, Orpheus remains a genius musician who, though in love with Eurydice, is preoccupied with his art above all. Her death is a touch of bad luck — you never know when a venomous snake will slither underfoot on your wedding day. But both adaptations draw a line of causality from Orpheus’s behavior to Eurydice’s death.
Perhaps, the productions suggest, Orpheus was the original slacker musician boyfriend, so concerned with his next big hit that he neglected the love who inspired his best work. But Eurydice doesn’t merely get dragged down into the underworld; in both versions she’s tempted by the offer of something she wants.
In Aucoin and Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” the new bride wanders off from her own wedding party. She’s bored and missing her dead father, who has been secretly trying to write to his beloved daughter from the underworld. In comes Hades, the ruler of that realm, as sleazy as a back-alley hustler, to manipulate her grief; he baits her with one of her father’s letters.
In Anais Mitchell’s “Hadestown,” the seduction is twofold: financial and sexual. Orpheus and Eurydice are trapped in some otherworldly version of the Depression era. In the lurid “Hey, Little Songbird,” Hades draws in Eurydice with promises of security and comfort, while undermining Orpheus, mocking him as a starving artist: “He’s some kind of poet and he’s penniless?/Give him your hand, he’ll give you his hand-to-mouth./He’ll write you a poem when the power’s out.”
But the pressure goes further; in Patrick Page’s beguiling performance, Hades is explicitly predatory, exploiting Eurydice’s feelings of displacement and neglect in her relationship.
That each of the two Eurydices actively makes a choice, as opposed to being passively buffeted by fate, is telling. But the result in both cases is still tragic.
Whether it’s via a gradual transformation, as in “Hadestown,” or an abrupt change, as in “Eurydice,” our heroine loses her sense of self. In the underworld of “Hadestown,” Eurydice joins Hades’s army of souls, forgetting her identity like the deceased around her. Her counterpart in “Eurydice” also forgets Orpheus, her own name and even how to read; she meets her dead father but is unable to recognize him at first.
I’ve already told you the spoiler, that the myth ends in death. Opera has an easier time going there; it’s difficult for a musical to pull off a somber ending — the upbeat finale that practically demands a standing ovation feels so much more typical for the form.
And yet “Hadestown” bravely, if self-consciously, resolves that way, announcing that the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is an “old song” and “a sad song, but we sing it anyway.”
“Eurydice” commits more explosively to woe in its stellar third act, after two acts of tedious exposition. Orpheus, Eurydice and Eurydice’s father all end up in the underworld together, but they find no peace. Eurydice’s father, having lost all hope of reuniting with his daughter after her husband arrives to save her, takes another dip into the Styx, causing him to die a final death. Eurydice, having lost both her husband and father twice, follows her father into oblivion.
So the grand tragedy of the piece isn’t contingent on Orpheus’s inconvenient rubbernecking and the implications about trust (though that’s in there too); it’s the ways death has riven these relationships. In trying to outmaneuver their mortality and reconnect with one another, Orpheus, Eurydice and Eurydice’s father each arrive at an oblivion more desolate and lonely than what they’d known before.
For all I appreciate about the way both productions offer Eurydice more agency, I do think they give her short shrift.
“Hadestown” sticks to the plot of the classic, with some twists and embellishments. But in performance, the musical positions her as the more interesting half of the couple. As played by Eva Noblezada, she is a plucky, streetwise heroine — “no stranger to the world,” as one lyric goes. She may love a juvenile dreamer lost in his own head (Reeve Carney, with a beardless falsetto). But she’s practical; she’ll do what it takes to survive in a world of gross inequality, where Hades is an industrial fat cat and artists and workers are largely servile. If her death becomes the focal point over her character, that may be more the myth’s fault than the musical’s.
“Eurydice” allows its heroine the power to decide: head back with her husband, or remain in the underworld with her father. She chooses to call to Orpheus — in effect separating from him and reuniting with her father.
But even with this often intriguing revision, the opera still defines Eurydice solely by her relationship to men. Take the scene of their marriage proposal: Orpheus slyly ties a red string around Eurydice’s ring finger, and suggests using her to create his art — quite literally, making an instrument from the strands of her hair. She laments her father’s absence at the wedding itself, because, she claims, she was married to her father first. She doesn’t seem to exist outside of these men.
When Eurydice dies the second time, vanishing without a trace, it’s as though she’s a figment of Orpheus’s imagination, more an archetype than anything else — the ill-fated lover, the tragic dead wife, another muse.
Still gone at the turn of a head.