George Frederic Watts's
painting of Orpheus and Eurydice
Like other stories from classical mythology, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told in many permutations over the centuries. The great singer agrees to descend into hell to bring his lover back from the dead, but (spoiler alert) loses her forever as he turns to look at her as they make the journey from the underworld. For The Eurydice Project: Stage Two, the Milwaukee Opera Theater presented an evening that could appropriately be called a theme and variations on one of the great tragic love stories of the ages.
Teaming with Carroll University, which hosted the concert, MOT’s Jill Anna Ponasik assembled a sort of grande tour of the myth’s place in Western music, starting appropriately at the beginning, an aria from Jacopo Peri’s 1600 opera that is considered to be the oldest on record. Images of Orpheus and Eurydice from centuries of painting, sculpture and theater were projected as part of the concert.
From that first operatic gesture, it was a whirlwind tour through opera and art song, a sampling that offered a demonstrative study in four centuries of shifting musical styles—Monteverdi to Gluck to Schubert to Offenbach to Vaughan Williams to Ricky Ian Gordon.
But it also offered proof of the endless appeal of the story—one that has unfailingly attracted poets and composers. Standout performers were Ruth Brown, who brought warmth and richness to Monteverdi arias and a song from Ricky Ian Gordon’s 2005 song cycle based on the myth. And Doug Clemons, who sang Schubert’s “Lied des Orpheus” with a style by turns robust and lyrical.
With MOT’s help, the story continues to inspire composers. The centerpiece of the concert were three new pieces, commissioned by MOT from Milwaukee composers. Joanna Kerner’s “Crumbling Love” took the singer-songwriter approach with strummed guitar accompaniment and soaring vocal lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a Broadway musical. Nathan Wesselowski’s duet, Eurydice, inventively used musical devices to suggest the drama of the story. In the beginning, unison vocal lines suggested the bond of the lovers, but they eventually gave way to small, biting intervals and eventually to rich parallel harmonies, which cascaded over a steady walking baseline that marked the lovers’ journey from the underworld.
Joel Boyd’s chamber opera, The Crawling Dove, drew on less familiar part of the love story, the couple’s early romance and the complications of a jealous rival. Boyd adapted the poetry of Virgil, making the dialogue and story contemporary. Here, Orpheus (Wesselowski) is the rather pompous son of the big man in town who steals Eurydice (Heidi Boyd) away from her high school sweetheart, Aristaeus (Clemons), who continues to love her.
Boyd has an expressive style that uses rich and sometimes angular melodies to suggest the emotion and drama in the story. Orpheus’s pompous self-assurance is suggested by dense chords, and Aristaeus’s anguished prayer to Apollo is accompanied by dense bass clusters. The most beautiful moment of the evening belonged to Heidi Boyd, singing an aria at the time of Eurydice’s death. It’s beautiful, clear, rich in imagery (with lyrics by the composer) and heartbreaking.