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Orpheus in the Underworld

by on 7 October 2019

A Hell of a Time

Orpheus in the Underworld

by Jacques Offenbach, libretto by Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 19th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Balloons, fluff, pastel, these Emma Rice trademarks are not what might spring to mind as immediate images of hell, but it is her ability to counterpoise picture-book imagery against disturbing undercurrents that makes her contribution to ENO’s Orpheus Series memorably different.

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (4)

The Series takes four different approaches to the classical myth of Orpheus descending into hell to try to bring back his dead wife Eurydice, with four very different composers and with four very different directors, each with backgrounds of different genres. Rice brings the innovative drama style of her Wise Children company into this her debut as an opera director.

So what does Rice do with Offenbach’s spoof piece? We have balloon sheep, balloon bees, balloon tutus and a London taxi flying on a bunch of balloons. There are little wow moments and big wow moments. Fluorescent paint and phosphorescent light, within Malcolm Rippeth’s colour-bursting lighting design, Lez Brotherston’s zany costumes and an erotic fly puppet all add to the sense of a rumbustious romp.

… Yet there is an edge to this production that makes it feel very uncomfortable. The sheer nastiness and sleaze of some of the plot doesn’t sit easily in a knock-about comedy. Offenbach and his librettists took Virgil’s version of the Orpheus story, complete with abduction, murder, rape and incarceration and made it bearable by over-the-top lampooning, mocking the heaviness of the original. They we also taking a side-swipe at convention by inverting Gluck’s established Orpheus and Eurydice and covertly satirising Napoleon III, then established as Emperor of the French, and his court. Offenbach’s operetta leans towards a cruel Carry-On approach, but with its hint of misogyny, it clashes with the radical 21st Century zeitgeist that Emma Rice would subscribe to. In trying to rein it back, she has missed the point. Her Orpheus in the Underworld has something of the gorgonzola about it: creamily enjoyable but veined with bitter threads.

That all said, Rice’s Orpheus in the Underworld is entertaining, in spite of itself, a frothy spectacle, with lots of fun and much clever wit. Nevertheless, the Offenbach black comedy is wrong-footed from the start, with a dumbshow during the overture.  This creates a back-story to account for the friction between Eurydice and Orpheus before her death, which culminates in their baby’s stillbirth. The jokey introduction of a wreath with the words Baby is miscalculated: not a good start for a comedy, even a black-comedy, and it takes a while for the show to get back into gear.

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (33)But once the operetta is on the road, it motors along a fair old rate. Indeed our narrator, who can’t help interfering in the plot, is a London cabby called Public Opinion. You see, he has The Knowledge. Lucia Lucas makes a very genial Public Opinion and, although not a 1950’s London cabby’s speaking voice, Lucas’ firm warm baritone is convincing. Public Opinion soon convinces Orpheus to win back Eurydice from her dalliance with Aristaeus, the shepherd, a man full of conceit at his own handsomeness.

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (22)Aristaeus is the alter ego of the demi-god of beekeeping and here he is “covered with bees from nape to knees”. The bees are one of the incarnations of the ever versatile ENO Chorus. All though is not as it seems, Aristaeus is one of the disguises from the box of disguises of Pluto, the god of the Underworld. ENO Harewood Artist, Alex Otterburn plays Pluto with mischievous gusto, bringing an athletic baritone voice to an athletic role.

Pluto also has a box of snakes, which lead to the demise of Eurydice in a cornfield. She believes she is going there to flatten the corn with Aristaeus and sings “I have dreamt of love again”. Mary Bevan shines as the hapless but defiant Eurydice, her elfin charm carrying a very difficult role. Bevan’s lovely clear soprano is heartrending, for we know her hopeful opening aria will ironically presage terrible things as Eurydice becomes used and abused.

Olympus, the home of the gods, is an Art Deco ocean yacht, the core feature of set designer Lizzie Clachan’s inspired concept which sits within a structure common to all four of the productions. The balloon-tutu clad chorus provides the heavenly clouds. Here the gods introduced themselves, each of in turn, Venus (Judith Howarth), the Kalashnikov-wielding Mars (Keel Watson), Diana (Idunnu Münch), Juno (Anne-Marie Owens) and Cupid (Ellie Laugharne) with all their various foibles.

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (11)Then Jupiter, father of the gods, puts in an appearance. His foibles are more than petty peccadilloes, as his wife Juno forcefully reminds him, backed up by the other gods. Sir Willard White adds an air of authority with his rich stentorian voice, in spite of his laid-back garb of multi-patterned Bermuda shorts. Puffing on his vape, he looks a little ill-at-ease.

Jupiter knows of the post-mortal abduction of Eurydice and sends Cupid down to the Underworld to fetch Pluto. She is appropriately clad for hell in hot-pants (gold!) and goes off hot-foot.

Orpheus’ bold arrival in Olympus is by Public Opinion’s balloon-borne FX4 taxicab, but he is in earnest to “go down to hell to rescue love from death”. When Orpheus plays his enhanced violin, the gods are moved. And so they should be, for Ed Lyon is a personable Orpheus, and his heart-felt singing of “Who am I without Eurydice?” is genuinely touching. The gods all en-bloc go to hell.

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (8)

Here is where the mood changes. The Underworld is 1950’s Soho. The gods have come to party in what could have been the Raymond Revuebar, but for Eurydice it is different. She is imprisoned in a sleazy Peep Show, a filthy plain bedroom, where she is leered at by D.O.Ms in archetypical dirty raincoats. Hell indeed, and made worse by the omnipresence of her gaoler, the drunken John Styx. As Styx, an Olympian medallist in creepiness, Alan Ope is brilliantly nasty, and manages to pull of the feat of acting the drunkenness whilst stinging with strong tenor punch a biographical song, Styx’s sob story about how he was once the King of Poland.

Shudder-inducing stuff, but Eurydice’s exploitation doesn’t end there, for Jupiter has designs on her. He disguises himself as a fly (previously he had specialised in bulls and swans) and comes to her room. Now, Rice does return to the Offenbach sense of ridicule. The lustful Jupiter has suitably erectile wings, while his entomological alter ego, a tickling stick skilfully sported by puppeteer Chloe Christian, sends her orgasmic: a sort of insect-ual intercourse, one supposes.

Meanwhile Pluto’s party continues and Eurydice is tricked in joining in, only to be abused by all in a burgeoning gang-bang. Her latest “admirer” is Bacchus, as drunk and revolting as Styx. ENO Chorus member, Peter Wilcock certainly savours the sliminess of this role, and manages to dance with enormous vigour, even with an enormous prosthetic beer-gut! The dancing is of course leading up to the famous (notorious?) galop infernal, now known to all as the Can-Can.

However, Public Opinion’s FX4 has made it to hell with Orpheus, whose violin charms the gods and convinces them that Eurydice should return … but for the ultimate irony that condemns her to stay forever as the consort of Bacchus.

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (30)

And when the Bacchanal resumes, le galop infernal returns in a frenzy. Choreographer Etta Murfitt elicits a storm of energy from everyone on stage as the music’s tempo continually increases. In this version however, we realise that it is a dance to oblivion, to “embrace the frenzy and the pain”. Eurydice is in an abyss of despair, but she must dance with the others until “you feel your soul goes”. This puts an edge on what sets out to be a lampoon.

Emma Rice said of Orpheus in the Underworld in a recent interview that she doesn’t find much of it funny: rather awkward for a comedy. But then again, in an interview in May 2012, she was asked, “Is there an art form you don’t relate to?” …”Opera. It’s a dreadful sound; it just doesn’t sound like the human voice”. Maybe it is these contradictions in a director of a comic operetta that make this Orpheus in the Underworld jar in its ambiguity.

Nevertheless, this is a piece that is visually impressive, witty and bold, and is executed with consummate skill by its artistes and propelled by the baton of conductor Sian Edwards (formerly ENO’s Director of Music) and the ENO Orchestra. Maybe it is those contradictions, that very ambiguity, that lifts this Orpheus in the Underworld from Offenbach’s anarchistic frolic to give it a sharp bite.

Mark Aspen
October 2019

Photography by Clive Barda

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