Emma Rice’s ENO staging of Orpheus in the Underworld has been much maligned in the traditional press recently, much to my dismay. Her efforts to update this nineteenth century operetta to suit the modern zeitgeist and ‘me too’ sensibility have been frowned upon by those supposedly in the know, who see her efforts to change storylines and libretto as “vulgar” and humourless.
Emma Rice is anything but! She does like to provoke but in many ways there is method to her madness. Much research for a start. And so what if she gets a little carried away sometimes!
Rice follows a long tradition of creatives who have tried to inject new meaning into traditional story-lines. Offenbach himself, cooked up a storm with the press in 1858, when he opened his two-act Orpheus in the Underworld (he wrote two versions – one two act and a later four act) at the Bouffes-Parisiens. On that occasion, the press accused him of satirising Gluck’s elegant Orpheus and Eurydice, of blaspheming antiquity and of attacking Napoleon III – in short he had created a monster!
Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice was serious and romantic by comparison (see my recent review of Orpheus and Eurydice at ENO here: McGregor’s Dance in ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ Gets the Youth Backing)
In Offenbach’s reincarnation of the myth, the luckless pair are married and unhappily so.
Despite the press’s opposition, Napoleonic society did give Offenbach’s controversial production a chance, and before long, the composer had a huge success on his hands.
When Rice first set eyes on Offenbach’s operetta, she was much disturbed by the representation of Offenbach’s Eurydice as an angry wife, who slept around happily with different gods from Mount Olympus and the Underworld. What was the point, thought the seasoned theatre director, if a modern audience doesn’t feel any sympathy towards Orpheus’s frisky wife. For Eurydice to sleep with Pluto (disguised as a shepherd), Rice wanted her to have a good reason. The reason came in the form of the death of Eurydice’s and Orpheus’s baby and their inability to bond over their grief.
Rice’s tragic narrative add-on has disturbed today’s journalists, who see it as a step too far, a cheap trick and out of place in what is supposed to be a light-hearted operetta. I disagree.
The humour was sparkling in the performance I attended. Alex Otterburn singing Pluto, was magnificent. When he tosses his long curly mane and swishes around in a sequinned suit and flame-tipped trousers with barbed tail singing, ‘I’m as handsome as hell’, you cannot help but laugh. He’s exuberant, a wonderful tenor and perfect for the riotous, rakish role.
Mary Bevan’s Eurydice brought gravitas to the operetta. She was truly moving when she delivered heart-breaking lines such as ‘What is this sweet and strange sensation’ and ‘The mess of living falls away’ in her sweet soprano voice as she lies dying from a snake bite. As a grief-stricken mother, Bevan was totally plausible welcoming death and infernal love as a way of blotting out the trauma of losing a child. Most reviewers, I am happy to say, have praised Bevan’s performance.
The cast of gods and goddesses was equally strong. Willard White’s bass baritone stood out as it should and he played Jupiter displaying just the right amount of calm authority and seductive power as befits the top dog on Mount Olympus. Under that charm, was a person who lies to get what he wants. He seduces Eurydice disguised as a fly, then tricks Orpheus finally with disastrous consequences. Jupiter’s underhand behaviour in the final act is another Emma Rice construct.
The stage and costumes did much to lighten the mood. Lots of colourful sequin dresses on Mount Olympus in Act II. The kingdom was a gleaming multi-levelled Hollywoodian swimming pool, complete with bellboy servants serving drinks. The gods, backed up by the chorus, created a wonderfully rich sound. Really impressive. Sometimes I had to remind myself I was at the opera though, not watching a Busby Berkley production!
Memorable too, were the Underworld scenes, notably the Peep Show in which poor Eurydice finds herself. Alan Oke playing Styx, stood out as Pluto’s sleazy henchman. Long-haired with a bald patch and dressed in a long, dirty cardigan and mack, he sang a show-stopping “King of Poland” number. Here, he not only displayed his amazing voice but his great comedic ability too.
My concerns were channelled towards the final Act IV, where Rice introduced amplification and a mic at the infernal party where the ghostly gallop infernal ie the can-can, is performed. I am a fan of Rice’s, but mics are clearly redundant in opera! Singers have spent the best part of their lives building up their voices and have no need of them. The use of amplification and bright lighting had already caused Emma Rice’s premature departure as artist director at the Globe Theatre in 2018.
Disappointing too was Act IV abrupt end. The tragedy on stage did not reflect in the music. Rice however could not change Offenbach’s music, hence the disconnect.
Otherwise I really enjoyed the performance and one cannot take away the brilliance of the stellar cast. I feel I have not done them justice in this review but go and see for yourselves.
And one other thing – it’s my little guilty secret. I have seen a lot of opera in my time but never Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. I had no preconceived ideas on how it should be staged or performed. I was coming to it fresh, like probably hundreds of late-teens I saw in the Coliseum audience that night, who seemed to enjoy the show as much as I did.
Orpheus in the Underworld remaining dates: 23rd, 30th October. 1st, 8th, 12th, 21st, 26, 28th November. Matinées 19, 26th October
Still running Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice: 17th, 24th 31st October. 14 and 19th November