Scottish Opera/Northern Ireland Opera at Young Vic – Orpheus in the Underworld [translation by Rory Bremner]

Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers) – A comic opera in two acts to a libretto by Hector Crémieux & Ludovic Halévy [sung in a new English translation by Rory Bremner]

Orpheus – Nicholas Sharratt
Eurydice – Jane Harrington
Public Opinion – Máire Flavin
Jupiter – Brendan Collins
Diana – Daire Halpin
Pluto / Aristaeus – Gavan Ring
John Styx / Mars – Ross McInroy
Venus – Marie Claire Breen
Juno – Olivia Ray
Mercury – Christopher Diffey

Ruth Wilkinson – Music Direction & Pianist
Oliver Mears – Director
Simon Holdsworth – Designer
Kevin Treacy – Lighting Designer
Anna Morrissey – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 30 November, 2011
Venue: The Maria, The Young Vic, London

Hot on the heels of Opera North’s residency at the Barbican Centre, the combined talents of Scottish Opera and Northern Ireland Opera have dropped anchor at London’s Young Vic Theatre with a chamber-sized touring version of Offenbach’s comic satire Orphée aux enfers. The pedigree is pretty good: no less a figure than Rory Bremner has provided the updated translation, and NI Opera’s Artistic Director Oliver Mears, lauded for last year’s site-specific production of Tosca in Belfast, is in charge of proceedings. With a strong cast of top-notch young singers ready to give it their all, what could possibly go wrong?

Classical sauce, that’s what. The show, a snug fit in the 150-seat Maria auditorium, takes Offenbach’s stylishly knockabout operetta and throws a blue, 21st-century comic book at it. Thus Orpheus (Nicholas Sharratt) is a posh twit married to a slapper of an Essex girl, Eurydice, played without a trace of inhibition by the talented Jane Harrington. She is dragged happily to hell by her fitness instructor, Aristaeus (headline: “Orpheus and you’re rid of me”), only to discover that he is really Pluto, Lord of the Underworld, in disguise. Cue the gods…

The vertical arrow on the foyer wall that sends the arriving audience upstairs to hell, rather than down below, is a paradox emblematic of the production itself. Bremner has jettisoned the Second-Empire milieu of the original – not unreasonably, given its contemporary nature, except that he has modernised it not with satire but with pantomime name-drops and sex puns (“Jupiter at your service. Cervix, more like” being one of the more repeatable examples). The cast throws its collective self at the material with abandon; but that’s half the trouble, because once a joke is overstated – let alone signalled, semaphored or shouted, as most of these are – laughter evaporates. The script’s relentless shag-fixation is helped neither by the uncertain tone of Mears’s production (in particular one notably off-colour visual gag that thudded like a stone) nor by modish, Ko-Ko-esque references to Greece, phone-hacking and “bunga bunga”. These fail to raise a laugh because without a comic context they are just words.

Occasionally we gain a glimpse of what might have been. The vibrant score wins through – just about – most of the time. Harrington drives it with a voice as big as her sense of fun, and if Gavan Ring (Pluto) gurns to excess, his wild vocal energy compensates. Although no-one high-kicks during the Can-Can, Anna Morrissey’s zippy movement-direction draws some game hoofing from the tireless ten-strong company and some frenetic piano-playing from Ruth Wilkinson.

Isolated barbs hit their mark – Harrington erupting in itchy hives whenever she hears her husband’s hated violin, the gods singing through their slumbers after a night’s nectar-necking in the trendy Olympus Champagne Bar, Jupiter (Brendan Collins) attempting to seduce Eurydice while clad in a preposterous fly costume, complete with sucker-schnozzle – but they are few. Were he alive today, Offenbach might reasonably feel peeved to see his orchestral sweep and satirical wit give way to an upright piano and a slew of gags about rutting; but he’d probably grasp the rueful irony, and – who knows? – he might even write about it. A comic opera, perhaps. Now that would be funny.

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