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Music Review: Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown: A Folk Opera

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Hadestown is a Greek tragedy set in 21st Century America. Or, it’s a comedic opera with an undercurrent of Greek tragedy. Or something. I really don’t know what to call it, except wonderful! In some ways it’s reminiscent of Rado & Ragni’s Hair, which broke the mold for musicals back in the 1960s. In other ways it’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.

The album is based on the ancient Greek myth of “Orpheus and his doomed quest to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld.” But it takes place in modern times, in today’s world, a seamless weave of ancient and modern, myth and real-life, religion and agnosticism. It’s a musical opera that’s unlike any opera you’ve ever witnessed. It’s Indie rock mixed with Dixieland. It’s Homer’s Odyssey as performed by Pink Floyd.

One thing it is, certainly, is a well-told story in musical form. Many CDs released today are more a motley collection of disjointed songs, the first, the middle, the finale having no connection to each other or to the remainder of the album. That’s not Hadestown, which takes the listener along a path that is clearly defined by the cast of characters as the tale progresses, but at the same time it’s a surprise at every turn, too. Many of the characters are easily identifiable, and an adept listener can easily change the voice of one of the characters to one of a current Member of Congress, telling their lies while furthering their own causes. Orpheus could easily be the naive American public, many of whom still believe in fairytales, deep into their dotage.

I’m waiting for the DVD. Let me rephrase that: I can’t wait for the DVD. I want it NOW! I made that judgment during the first minute or two of the CD, while reading the one-page liner notes, which consisted only of a list of characters, voices, and the accompanying musicians. Now that I’ve heard the CD several times over, I reaffirm. Let yourself be sucked into the eddy of the mesmerizing lyric and melody, and the voices keep you there, drowning in ecstasy.

Two quotes, below are disparate to the extreme, yet they weave this ‘folk opera’ together seamlessly:

The enemy is poverty and the wall keeps out the enemy

That’s why we build the wall, we build the wall to keep us free.

There’s no logic, yet it’s the mantra of entire countries, one gone, one still under construction.

When I sing my song
All the rivers sing along.

The distance between the two quotes is a virtual canyon, yet Mitchell uses them to bridge the chasm superbly.

Guest artists in this compelling story include Ani DiFranco as Hades’ wife Persephone, strong-willed and subversive; Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) as Orpheus; Greg Brown as Hades, Lord of the Underworld, aka “king of the kingdom of dirt,” his voice perfect casting; Ben Knox Miller as the messenger Hermes; The Haden Triplets as the chorus; and Mitchell herself singing the part of Eurydice.

This play was done live a number of times with a different cast. You can see samples of the original production here.  You can also catch Anaïs Mitchell performing “Why We Build The Wall” here.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • http://www.twitter.com/coleifornia Cole Farrell

    Correction: Jesus Christ Superstar was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, not James Rado and Gerome Ragne. They wrote Hair.

  • Lou Novacheck

    Good catch, my mistake. I meant to use Rado & Ragni, which I also erred on (I wrote Ragne). Hair came first, which was the reference I intended.

    Sorry, everybody.

  • big fan

    just saw anais mitchell live at the colonial theatre in bethlehem nh. One of the best live performances i have seen. truly MUSIC to my ears. beautiful.