As Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown” unfurled, it did so in patiently, almost melodramatically: mallet strikes on a series of gongs; a plucked stringed instrument that might be a lute or pipa; then hand drums and a snare stroked with brushes, followed by the whistle of a pedal steel guitar. Supply foundation established, Mitchell entered, her squeak of a voice congenial yet authoritative as she posed a question to her lover: How will you provide for us in these hard times? Her first guest, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, provided the response: The world will provide for us.
The sense of drama came from the root source: Mitchell and Vernon were portraying Eurydice, a daughter of Apollo, and Orpheus, who, in Greek mythology, charmed humanity and nature with his music. According to legend, after Eurydice was killed by a viper bite, so heavy and consuming was Orpheus’s grief that the gods insisted he journey to the underworld to retrieve her.
This is a theme of Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice,” performed in 1762. Issued almost 250 years later, “Hadestown” has been described as a folk opera. A superb folk singer and composer, Mitchell is capable of taking on and convincingly conveying a tale that has been told since at least the sixth century B.C. Here, the setting wasn’t the proverbial hell, but a town that might boil over with rage at injustice. Hadestown has a speakeasy, a train depot and may build a wall to keep out agitators. Ani DiFranco’s Persephone arrived in town carrying a suitcase. Hermes, the intermediary between the gods and man who was portrayed here by Ben Knox Miller, was a hobo.
As the music continued, more Mitchell guests entered: Miller, a member of the Low Anthem, and DiFranco sang in the title track, a folk blues; Greg Brown, who played Hades, the god of the underworld (and Persephone’s husband), delivered the boozy “Hey, Little Songbird”; and the Haden Triplets, as the Fates, accompanied Mitchell on “Gone, I’m Gone,” a lament that opened into a spry dance tune. The singers’ performances were uniformly excellent; highlights included Di Franco’s witty, biting “Our Lady of the Underground”; and the Tom Waits-like “Wait for Me,” featuring a whispering Miller and layers of Vernon’s sweet voice. Mitchell’s reading of “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)” was heartbreaking.
Written by Mitchell, the music was old-time American folk informed by New Orleans jazz and country played here by drummer Jim Black, cellist Marika Hughes, violist Tanya Kalmanovich, trombonist Josh Roseman and bassist-producer Todd Sickafoss, among others. Orchestral arrangement were by guitarist Michael Chorney, who work-shopped the material with Mitchell on tour before bringing the project into the studio.
Given its ancient origins, the story went were it had to, but Mitchell was never short of imagination. As Vernon’s Orpheus returned to rescue his Eurydice, his song was heard by Hades, and a solution was proposed. For those unfamiliar with the myth, let’s keep it a secret, other than to say Mitchell’s Eurydice and DiFranco’s Persephone duet on the beautiful, bittersweet “I Raise My Cup to Him.”
“Hadestown,” Mitchell’s fourth album, was remarkably well-received by critics. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it may be the best-reviewed album I’ve come across in my 30+ year career. It failed to cross over onto the pop charts, but it reached the Top 10 in Billboard’s folk albums survey. Mitchell followed it in 2012 with “Young Man in America,” which is also excellent, and a year later with “Child Ballads,” a collection of traditional folk tunes recorded with Jefferson Hamer. Her most recent release, “xoa,” which included re-recordings of her earlier songs, was described as a gift for fans. With “Hadestown,” she made an album that updated an ancient tale and made it as fresh and topical as today.