Anais Mitchell,
(Righteous Babe, 2010)

They say Orpheus sang so sweetly for his lost love, he melted the cold heart of Hades himself and won his bride her freedom from death.

I say Hades is a right crafty old bastard whose cold heart doesn't thaw and, while he did relent and allow Orpheus to lead the shade of Eurydice from the cold realm, he knew all along the conditions he established would cause Orpheus to fail and lose his love once more, magnifying his woe tenfold.

Anais Mitchell gets that. Her folk-opera Hadestown works it right into the plot.

The classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, told in the Greek and Roman myths of Ovid and Virgil, contends with Romeo & Juliet for the title of most tragic romance. It's been told and retold in many forms, with varying levels of success. Mitchell knocks it out of the park here, with a tale that is both timeless and contemporary in its dark, Dixieland-inflected presentation.

Besides Mitchell, who sings the part of Eurydice, the recording includes the talents of Justin Vernon (Orpheus), Ani DiFranco (Persephone), Greg Brown (Hades), Tanya, Petra and Rachel Haden (the Fates) and Ben Knox Miller (Hermes).

It was Miller who first lured me in with the song "Way Down Hadestown," a raucous showstopper of a number that made me eager to hear more. The remainder of the production lives up to that first impression, with solid performances and infectious melodies throughout. The story begins with Orpheus and Eurydice, young and in love and desperately poor, running afoul of the glib Hades, a man of obvious wealth and power, who lures Eurydice to the underworld with promises of plenty. She quickly realizes her mistake, but there's no going back. Orpheus, undeterred, is following hard on her heels with rescue in mind. He finds an unlikely ally in Persephone, Hades' unwilling queen.

But, as I already mentioned, Hades is no pushover.

There is good music from start to end. Besides "Way Down Hadestown," I am particularly fond of "Why We Built the Wall," a call-and-response proving Hades to be a master of Orwellian doublespeak and, perhaps, a Pink Floyd fan to boot. As Hades, Brown sings with a voice that is full of gravel and steel, with just a touch of honey where needed.

Voices are strong all around, but particular mention goes to Mitchell herself. Her pixie voice evokes all the right notes of innocence lost and choices poorly made.

music review by
Tom Knapp

15 September 2012

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