Singer and songwriter Anais Mitchell wrote the first draft of her “folk opera” Hadestown in 2006 with arranger Michael Chorney and director Ben T. Matchstick. After numerous drafts and performances, it is set in stone here. Hadestown retells the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in an America of hard times economically, socially, and politically. (There is a hint of the great Depression as a setting, but only a hint.) The cast includes Mitchell as Eurydice, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) as Orpheus, Ani DiFranco as Persephone, Greg Brown as Hades, Ben Knox Miller (The Low Anthem) as Hermes, and the Haden Triplets -- Petra, Rachel, and Tanya) as the Fates. The large band includes Rob Burger, Jim Black, Josh Roseman, Nate Wooley, Todd Sickafoose, Marika Hughes, and Tanya Kalmanovich, to name a few.
Hadestown's narrative, like the myth, steeps itself in ambiguities more than dead certainties. It moves past dualities of good and evil, life and death, hope and despair, while examining how commonly held beliefs about class reinforce poverty, how our desire for security is complicit in giving away our freedoms, and what real generosity in love actually is. Nowhere is this more evident than a Brown showcase number, “Why We Build the Wall.” (With the cast/chorus unintentionally answering Woody Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land” anthem that would make him weep with grief.) There isn’t a weak track here, but high points include “Our Lady of the Underground,” sung by DiFranco; the fierce, yet tender “How Long” with Brown and DiFranco; both parts of Vernon’s “Epic,” Mitchell's and Vernon’s “Doubt Comes In,” and “I Raise My Cup to Him,” by Mitchell with DiFranco. Everything here is ambitious, nothing is excessive. The music ranges with classic American folk forms: country gospel, ragtime, blues, and early jazz, to approximations of rock, swing, and avant-garde -- all of it immediate, accessible, and inviting. Vernon’s vocal range -- husky baritone to sweet falsetto -- does justice to Orpheus. Only a singer like this could write a song beautiful enough to rescue his lover from the Underworld. Mitchell doesn’t make herself the star, but is nonetheless. She is convincing as Eurydice; her lyrics are poetic, and her melodies unpretentious, yet sophisticated thanks to Chorney’s arrangements. This 57-minute work goes by in a flash. Artfully conceived, articulated, and produced, Hadestown raises Mitchell's creative bar exponentially: there isn't anything else remotely like it.