Last Wednesday night was my first time at St. Albert’s Arden Theater and although I had heard All Music Guide’s praise that ‘there isn’t anything remotely like [Hadestown]”, I had no idea what the evening’s entertainment would hold. I decided to indulge in some quality father-daughter time and invited my dad as my date- he was skeptical of attending a “folk opera”. Nonetheless, off we went to the Arden to witness Anais Mitchell’s modernized re-telling of the classic myth of Orpheus, who attempts to return his wife to life after she succumbs to Hades’ promise of security in his walled Underworld.
The set was simple; a chandelier hung over the 6-piece orchestra and accompanying players while projections of Grammy-winning linoleum prints of the album artwork filled screens at the back of the stage. Conveying the myth through a 6-piece orchestra, a group of voices and a simple set design forces the listener to flex the muscles of the imagination, making the mode of folk opera a very unique experience. Instead of being immersed in the story through theatrical conventions such as elaborate set changes, costumes, or the skills of an actor, the characters and plot unfolded through the lyrics and music. Overall, I found the chance to sink into my head and visualize my own version of Hadestown under the guidanc of Mitchell’s troupe refreshing and exciting. However, the folk-opera mode did have its drawbacks. The production drew on the talent of musicians and not players, and I found the collective lacked stage presence making the magic of the myth hard to sustain at times. Trying to hold the intricate relationship between the characters in mind without much interaction between them was difficult. When Persephone walked on stage with shrugged shoulders and head hung low she seemed to blend into the rafter she sat upon. Until she sang. Her sultry, smoky voice stood out and obscured her unsure demeanor. Furthermore, given Orpheus’ reputation as the world’s greatest poet and musician, I found his character lacking in confidence on the stage as if he was uncertain of what to do with his body. But with Mitchell’s seamless lyrics and Michael Chorney’s arresting orchestral arrangement, the production was an acoustic delight.
The pair began the show with a selection of songs from Mitchell’s newly released album, Young Man in America. Mitchell’s high but strong voice combined with the breakneck speed fingerpicking of Chorney made for some beautiful folk music and a smooth way to introduce the show. Hadestown originated as a community theater project in Vermont and has been on tour since as a sort of “musical cultural exchange program” in Mitchell’s own words, wherein I believe lies a great deal of its value. The show introduced local talents such as the likes of Steven Tchir and John Rutherford to like-minded friends from across the border creating a distinct sense of artistic community and a highly unique experience for the audience.
By the end of the performance, my dad transitioned from skeptic to adherent of folk-opera. Hadestown’s creative approach to storytelling resulted in a unification of artists local and foreign that forced its listeners to stretch our imaginations and evaluate our values.