Opera Holland Park – Orpheus in the Underworld

Orpheus in the Underworld – Opéra-bouffon in two acts to a libretto by Hector Crémieux & Ludovic Halévy [Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Public Opinion – Nuala Willis
Eurydice – Jeni Bern
Orpheus – Benjamin Segal
Aristaeus / Pluto – Daniel Broad
Morpheus – Benjamin Newhouse-Smith
Cupid – Janet Harrington
Venus – Verity Parker
Mars – Maciek O’Shea
Jupiter – Ian Caddy
Juno – Jill Pert
Diana – Nicola Stonehouse
Minerva – Louise Crane
Mercury – Oliver White
John Styx – John Lofthouse
Bacchus – Ste Clough

Opera Holland Park Chorus

City of London Sinfonia
John Owen Edwards

Tom Hawkes – Director
Peter Rice – Designer
Colin Grenfell – Lighting designer
Jenny Weston – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 30 June, 2009
Venue: Holland Park Theatre, Kensington, London

Jacques Offenbach (1819-80) is the man who invented French operetta, the musical-comedy genre that subsequently led to the music-theatre works of Johann Strauss II, Oscar Straus and Franz Lehár, and the rise of Gilbert & Sullivan, which was followed by the Broadway musical. At the time of composition, according to French public entertainment regulations, musical shows could only be short and feature just three players. Only Paris Opéra was allowed to perform pieces sung throughout in French, while Opéra Comique could include dialogue. Offenbach changed all that and, as he became more successful, he gradually expanded his works, adding more characters. By 1858 the rules were relaxed and he presented his first, full-length operetta with many leading roles and a full chorus. The result was “Orpheus in the Underworld”.

Although immediately popular, ‘Orpheus’ was also originally considered a travesty of Gluck’s treatment of the tragic story of Orpheus and Eurydice in which the heroine dies and is transported to Hades from where the hero tries to rescue her. Offenbach saw the funny side of the Greek gods and their antics, having Orpheus and Eurydice at loggerheads, both in love with others, Orpheus with a nymph, Eurydice with a shepherd. In fact the shepherd Aristaeus is Pluto, King of the Underworld, in disguise. He does not so much kill her as seduce her into the Underworld. If Orpheus is filled with delight, it is short-lived as Public Opinion tells him to pursue his love and rescue her from the Gods on Mount Olympus. This they do and after much argument and not a little funny stuff, including quotations from Gluck’s opera, all ends in rejoicing and the famous ‘gallop infernal’, which subsequently became the Can-Can, Offenbach’s most remembered tune.

Jeremy Sams has created a new English version of ‘Orpheus’ for Opera Holland Park. Some might say it is a travesty of a travesty. For no discernible reason the piece is set in a Hollywood film studio (Paramount circa 1935 given the roster of ‘stars’ who appear). The piece opens with an unnamed director (it could be Josef von Sternberg) barking orders at the musical director (Herr Dreier!). When the action gets underway the director appears to be filming the action of the operetta. However, this point ultimately becomes pointless because there is no reason for it to be there. That apart, the production is fuelled by fun and for the most part looks good with some witty sets and costumes and musically sounds gorgeous.

Eurydice (Jeni Bern) is a bit of a WAG, complete with estuary English accent, although she manages to sing like a dream. Her shepherd-cum-king of Hades, Pluto (Daniel Broad) is, of course, disguised as a dog with what, one assumes, are a clutch of young pups in tow, although, leather-clad, they look more like numerous cat-women. Benjamin Segal’s Orpheus is played as a bit of a bore, while Nuala Willis as Public Opinion is a Mary Whitehouse figure who blusters, complaining about anything. Ian Caddy’s Jupiter, King of the Gods, is clad in bling while Jill Pert’s Juno is something of a gorgon. Characterisation is very clever and mostly riotous although there is the occasional tendency to become G & S twee. But Tom Hawkes’s production works well and he gets some good singing from his principals and chorus. John Owen Edwards has the City of London Sinfonia playing to strength even when its members are forced to don devil’s horns.

Why Cupid looks like Harpo Marx, why Venus is a Mae West lookalike, and why Carmen Miranda and Veronica Lake are there is a mystery. Admittedly they were all Paramount Pictures’ stars but the film-studio idea seems to eventually go nowhere, even if John Styx appears dressed as a drunken cinema commissionaire and Oscar of Academy Award fame puts in an appearance. Perhaps a surfeit of good fun is hard to swallow in one production.

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