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The New Eurydice: A Feminist Revision of One of Music’s Oldest Myths?

This Saturday, soprano Barbara Hannigan and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome), conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, give the New York premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino’s 2014 work La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke (The New Eurydice According to Rilke).

Drawing on the ancient myth of Orpheus “rescuing” Eurydice from the Underworld, Sciarrino follows a long line of composers who have set this story to music.

But Sciarrino pushes this history aside, choosing instead to create a work that shows a “new” Eurydice based on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke by combining two poems—Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes and To Music.

Who is this “new Eurydice” that Sciarrino imagines?

Based on Rilke’s poems, we can guess that she is actually a feminist.

Rilke’s poem Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes portrays Eurydice—ushered by Hermes—following Orpheus out of the Underworld. Bound by an oath, Orpheus must not turn around to see if Eurydice follows him.

In operatic retellings, Eurydice often sings to her beloved, becoming the siren that causes Orpheus to turn. But in Rilke’s imagination, however, Eurydice is silent, and her walk is “uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.”

While Orpheus strides forward in bold steps, Eurydice is self-possessed and unhurried. His confidence shrinks at Eurydice’s indifference, causing him to doubt himself, turn around, and sabotage his efforts.

Validating Orpheus’s fears, when Hermes delivers the message that “he has turned around,” Eurydice asks simply, “Who?” She turns and wanders back to the Underworld, just as “uncertain, gentle, and without impatience” as before.

So what’s with this indifferent Eurydice?

Rilke’s poem, published in 1904, appeared during the rise across Europe of the so-called New Woman, a first-wave feminist who cut her hair short, wore pants, rode her bike, and postponed marriage to pursue her own interests.

Reading into Sciarrino’s title, his “new” Eurydice, meandering at her own pace rather than dutifully following Orpheus, resembles the New Woman and her lukewarm feelings toward marriage. Sciarrino even chose this poem over Rilke’s more famous Sonnets to Orpheus because “Rilke doesn’t give Orpheus a face.” Instead Sciarrino focuses on Eurydice’s autonomy and the disruption it causes Orpheus when he is no longer being adored.

Of course a lot depends on how Sciarrino treats this text in his work. Will the soprano, Hannigan, embody an aimless Eurydice narrating her own story? Is she really so aimless, or does Sciarrino give her greater depth? We’ll just have to see.

But one thing is for sure, this Eurydice is no doting bride waiting to be rescued.