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Opera on DVD: Orpheus in the Underworld

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Jacques Offenbach, Orphée aux enfers [Orpheus in the Underworld], Alexandru Badea, Elizabeth Vidal, Reinaldo Macias, directed by Dirk Gryspiert, Théâtre de la Monnaie (released on July 16, 2002)
This silly, ingenious operetta was one of Jacques Offenbach's first big successes (Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, 1858), which did not prevent the composer, ever a man of the theater, from significantly revising the work (Théâtre de la Gaîté, 1874) later in life. This DVD is a re-release of a film, made for television in the 1990s, of a production of the operetta at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. The Brussels production used an adaptation of the 1874 version of the work. In writing the clever libretto (that electronic version, probably scanned, is deplorably full of errors), Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy were conscious that the Orpheus story is the cornerstone of opera history, and Offenbach makes several references to Gluck's famous setting, Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), especially Orfeo's aria Che farò senza Euridice?.

I recently reviewed one of the many lesser-known versions of the story, Telemann's Orpheus, at Wolf Trap. That opera changes the myth significantly, while remaining in a serious vein, but Offenbach's operetta undermines the story from the beginning, showing Orphée and Eurydice fighting in the opening scene, while still in their wedding outfits. (Some versions of the myth have Orpheus renouncing women altogether after Eurydice dies, favoring instead adolescent boys. That is supposedly why the Bacchantes, angry that he had spurned female kind, tore him to pieces.) It would actually have been an interesting idea for Wolf Trap to have paired this operetta with Orpheus (instead of Le Comte Ory, for example, which is their second opera). A fun summer festival idea would be to select several Orpheus operas: perhaps Gluck's could go with this one, because Offenbach cites it so much.

Jacques Offenbach, composerOrphée is in love with another nymph but is outraged that Eurydice is already in love with a shepherd, Aristée. Orphée's instrument here is the violin, and he threatens to play his latest 75-minute concerto to torment his wife in their catfight duet ("Ah! c'est ainsi! / Oui, mon ami"). A scene later, when we learn that Aristée is actually Pluto, come to take Eurydice to the underworld, she writes the message on her husband's violin. When he learns of his wife's death, one of the crucial moments in the more famous operatic settings of this story, Orphée bursts into tears. We then learn, in a hilarious twist, that he is not sad but joyous, crying out "Merci, merci, Jupiter! Libre! ô bonheur ! ô joie extreme!" (Thank you, Jupiter! I'm free! What great joy!). Eurydice is sung by Elizabeth Vidal, who is still quite active in Europe as a coloratura. Her voice is a little flutey, razor-thin at points in the high range, although she has those very high notes. At points, perhaps because of breath support issues, some notes sagged out of tune. She was at her best by the time the Duo de la Mouche rolled around in the third act.

This Monnaie production is interesting, if a little odd. L'Opinion Publique is costumed as a cleaning woman, with a toilet brush as a sort of magic wand (in the libretto, the character is described only as "un jeune homme"). She mostly speaks, thankfully, since when she sings she's awful. Romanian tenor Alexandru Badea is a vain and impetuous Orphée, an "artiste" who spends much of his stage time running his hands through his long hair and worrying about his reputation with audiences. His French pronunciation is marginal, perhaps exaggerated to give a foreign air to the character, and he has some good high notes. He does actually play some of the violin parts on stage, not very well but passably. His singing on this DVD is not always on the mark, but he has nailed the character. I seem to recall that he sang here at Washington National Opera a few seasons ago.

When we arrive at the second act, we see that Mount Olympus is the large pillared dining hall of what looks like a smoky Grand Empire restaurant: the gods are falling asleep at their tables, attired in formal dining wear, with Cupid as the waiter in vest and bow tie (played by a soprano). The gods here are the decadent moneyed class of France, with Jupiter (Dale Duesing, now teaching at Lawrence Conservatory: he will be at Washington National Opera next season as the Narrator in Sophie's Choice, a role he created) as the biggest amoral philanderer of them all, concerned only with "keeping up appearances" in the face of increased scrutiny from the lower human world. Think of the moral oddities found in Proust, and you've got it: at one point, Jupiter makes out with Venus, a sexy number in a red dress who also happens to be his relative. Juno, a suspicious and imperious grande dame in pearls, chain-smokes her way through her scenes, long cigarette holder in her gloved hand. She is the sort who probably would boo the premiere of The Rite of Spring. In the entertaining Rondeau des Métamorphoses, the gods take Jupiter to task, recalling the forms he assumed during some of his many sexual escapades. If you love Greek and Roman mythology, this operetta spoof will have you in stitches.

Offenbach, Orphée aux enfers, Opéra national de Lyon
The production does not get any less strange, with Mercury (Franck Cassard) making his entrance by crashing through the skylight, suspended on flying wires. Understandably, Franck Cassard is a little breathless during his rondo saltarelle ("Eh hop! Eh hop! Place à Mercure!") Inexplicably, there is a large shaggy dog (played by a person in a costume) that does not belong to anyone but barks loudly in its scenes. (It turns out to be Cerberus in the second act.) When we switch to the locale of the third act (the underworld), the earth trembles, the lights darken, and the set crashes to pieces as a train descends almost vertically through the roof to crash to the floor. It's a funicular straight to hell. Portions of the score are cut, including the Ballet des Mouches and the most of the choruses (the Chœur Infernal and the famous Galop Infernal, now known primarily as the Can-Can, the best-known piece Offenbach wrote, of the fourth act remain).

This DVD was fun to watch, and I believe it is the only DVD version of the operetta available in the United States. (The purpose of this "Opera on DVD" series is to go through the DVDs available from Netflix.) Europeans should probably buy the more recent, and by reputation better, DVD from the Opéra national de Lyon, a 1997 production by Laurent Pelly, with Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Yann Beuron, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and conducted by Marc Minkowski. It has not been released in the U.S., and I have not seen it yet, but I imagine that it would be the one to buy. The cast list and creative team are both superior to the Monnaie version.

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