Saturday, March 13, 2010

Anais Mitchell's Hadestown

I don’t know how I had never heard of this before, but I am so glad this is finally part of my listening landscape. Hadestown is the “Folk Opera” by singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell. In reading about its history, I know that she has been performing it in one way or another for many years. The next goal of mine is to see a theatrical performance.

I have been listening to it pretty much non-stop since buying it from iTunes on the March 9th, the day it was released. The recording features Mitchell herself, of course, but also a host of guest artists, the most notable being Ani DiFranco. Also, Justin Vernon from the band Bon Iver, Ben Knox Miller, Greg Brown and the Haden Triplets (Tanya, Petra and Rachel), none of whom I had been previously familiar with.

The story is the mythic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, but with a bit of a spin. The milieu is a world of poverty to be contrasted with Mitchell’s vision of the underworld where the dead work for Hades protecting his realm from the rest of the world. There are twenty songs that tell the story. And what I love about it most is that in this version, Eurydice is the main character and Orpheus is more of a plot device – which in the traditional tale the tables are usually turned.

The story begins with “Wedding Song” where Eurydice confronts her lover, Orpheus. The times are hard and they have nothing so how does Orpheus propose to take care of this wedding? As practical as Eurydice is, Orpheus is more of a dreamer. He is happy with all of the things that nature can give them – the rivers, the trees and the birds. Orpheus’ ideals continue into the next song, “Epic (Part I)” where he appears to be telling the story of Hades and explaining that he would rather be poor than be a slave in the underworld (i.e. Dead).

The ensemble piece “Way Down Hadestown” introduces the supporting cast; particularly Hermes in his role as Psychopompos or, it appears, a train conductor inviting the poor people to come with him to Hades’ kingdom. We also meet Persephone, performed flawlessly by DiFranco. Apparently it is autumn time and she tells us that her husband had come to “bring [her] home to Hadestown.”

As the story continues in song, Eurydice makes a choice. Or does she? The asp is absent, but the term Viper is used in the lyrics to represent her death. I see her descent in to the underworld as a direct result of the poverty that she has been enduring. She is sorrowful to leave Orpheus behind, but in this version Eurydice has conscious thoughts about the matter. I love that this is Eurydice’s story. Mitchell herself sings this role and I am enamored by her gritty but innocent sounding voice.

We also meet the three fates, which to me represent the traditional use of the Chorus in Greek tragedies. The Haden Triplets give a voice to what everyone is thinking about the story in progress.

In Track 9, “Why We Build the Wall” we hear from Hades, intriguingly performed by the harsh, bluesy voice of Greg Brown. He tells the story of the work that he gives the people of his kingdom. And this song segues into my favorite track, for clearly obvious reasons, “Our Lady of the Underground.” Persephone runs a speakeasy of sorts sharing lots of contraband items from the world above, the very world she lives in for half of the year.

I can give you what it is you crave
A little something from the good old days
I’ve got the wind right here in a jar
I’ve got the rain on tap at the bar
I got sunshine up on the shelf
Allow me to introduce myself
Brother, what’s my name
My name is…
"Our lady of the underground"

Come here brother, let me guess
It is the little things you miss
Spring flowers, autumn leaves
Ask me brother and you shall receive
Or maybe these just ain’t enough
Maybe you’re looking for some stronger stuff
I’ve got a sight for the sorest eyes
When’s the last time you saw the sky
Wipe away your tears
Brother I know how you feel
I can see you’re blinded by the sadness of it all
Look a little closer
Everything will be revealed
Come a little closer
There’s a crack in the wall
After this performance by Persephone, we hear the very mournful side of Eurydice’s story. My friend, Kathryn Hinds, once mused that she disliked how Eurydice was always just a plot device for Orpheus’ story. She will find comfort in knowing that Mitchell has taken up the mantle of telling Eurydice’s tale, all but ignoring Orpheus in the process. In “Flowers”, Eurydice dwells on what led her to this place at this time. She shares what I am guessing are Hermes’ words to her as she boarded the train to Hadestown, “You won’t feel a thing, he said, when you go down. Nothing gonna wake you up now.” But she continues to mourn what it is that she gave up when she arrived:

I remember fields of flowers
Soft beneath my heals
Walking in the sun
I remember someone by my side
Turned his face to mine
And then I turned away
Into the shade
The story continues as you might expect. Orpheus mourns the death of his beautiful wife and makes plans to follow her into the underworld to rescue her. It appears that he finds Persephone’s crack in the wall and is able to get in, angering King Hades in the process. Persephone appeals to her husband in the song “How Long?”:

If you had heard how he sang tonight
You’d pity poor Orpheus
All of his sorrow won’t fit in his chest
It just burns like a fire in the pit of his chest
And his heart is a bird on a spit in his chest

And so Hades replies to his wife:

Just as long as Hades is king
Nothing comes from wishing on stars
Nothing comes from songs people sing
However sorry they are
Give them a piece and they’ll take it all
Show them the crack and they’ll tear down the wall
In “Epic (Part II)”, Orpheus appeals to Hades directly. So he reminds the King of his own experience with love and recounts the tale of Hades and Persephone. I love how, in Orpheus’ version, there is no mention of force or anger. Hades sees Persephone, falls madly in love and takes her as his wife. Just my kind of myth.

Suddenly he saw her there
Persephone, in her mother’s garden
The sun on her shoulders
The wind in her hair

So Hades gives in during the song “His Kiss, the Riot”:

Only one thing can be done
Let them think that they have won
Let them leave together
Under one condition
Orpheus the undersigned
Shall not turn to look behind
She’s out of sight
And he’s out of his mind

We all know the end of the story. Eurydice follows Orpheus toward the crack in the wall, but Orpheus doubts her presence. In Mitchell’s version, Eurydice even speaks encouraging words to her husband and they ascend, and yet he still isn’t convinced. And in the end, he is gone and she is not.

The tale usually follows Orpheus out of the underworld and toward his own tragic end without his wife by his side. But in Mitchell’s Folk Opera, we stay in the underground and experience Persephone and Eurydice singing the final tribute to the brave musician:

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright
My praise is not for them
But the one who sings
In the dead of night
I raise my cup to him

I can’t recommend this recording enough. The tale is exquisitely told in the hands of such an adept song writer. The characters are performed with such heart and soul that the listener will easily mourn along side Orpheus and Eurydice. I even find myself very sympathetic to this portrayal of Hades and his beloved wife, Persephone. I can’t wait to be able to experience a performance of this production live.

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