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Opera Vivente: Orpheus in the Underworld

Jessica Renfro (Diana), Ryan de Ryke (Jupiter), Siobhan Kolker (Venus) in Orpheus in the Underworld, 2008, Opera Vivente, photo by Cory Weaver
The last production of Opera Vivente's 10th season was Jacques Offenbach's screwball operetta Orphée aux Enfers (see my review of this DVD version). This was a banner anniversary year for the little company based in a Baltimore church, with a psychedelic Alcina last fall and the high point of Tobias and the Angel last month. The Jonathan Dove opera, in particular, was a hard act to follow, and this production gasped with frenetic energy but still felt overshadowed. Offenbach and his librettists, Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy, created a madcap send-up of that most serious and operatic of mythological legends, and good satire requires a loving and thorough knowledge of the target. Director John Bowen's staging puts the emphasis on the zany, updating the libretto's criticism of the Second Empire's hypocritical morality to the seedy world of reality television.

Jupiter and Juno are transformed into a philandering televangelist and his mascara-abusing wife, but Jupiter's heavy Texan-twang elocutions are just as often spoofs of President Bush. Eurydice becomes a gold-digging party girl fallen out of love with her husband, the violin-wielding Orpheus, whom she credits with "inventing classical crossover." (Bowen made his own English version of the libretto, changing not only the dialogue but much of the sung text.) Both Orpheus and Jupiter live in fear of Public Opinion, costumed here as a bun-topped, black-suited killjoy (in the libretto, the trouser role of L'Opinion Publique is described only as un jeune homme). A hip-hop Mercury (dreadlocks, sideways cap, and bling-bling) plays on the words of the character's rondo saltarelle ("Eh hop! Eh hop! Place à Mercure!"), while the other gods become a wrecked floozy (Venus), a straight-laced, glasses-wearing good girl (Minerva), a sexually conflicted midshipman (Mars), and a butch dyke (Cupid, also a trouser role).

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, An updated, uneven 'Orpheus' from Opera Vivente (Critical Mass, April 14)
While this sort of manipulation of the story can be grotesque in a more serious opera, Orphée aux Enfers invites parody, being already about as ridiculous as possible. If you like your opera literal or if you cringe at corny jokes (the television screen that frames the back of the stage is branded "Offenbox," and it just gets worse from there), this production is not for you. Put a star next to Ryan de Ryke, whose Jupiter was a smarmy lothario in preacher's clothing, and the promising voices of Christopher Herbert's Pluto, Maria Kate Fleming's Cupid, and Jessica Renfro's Diana. Conductor JoAnn Kulesza had a sure hand at the podium of a generally good chamber orchestra (the reduction of the score was done by Tony Burke), with exceptional sounds from the flute and piccolo of Melinda Wade-English. Although Anton T. Wilson's choreography was at times scattered and overly repetitive, the macarena-style group dance for the famous Can-Can, or Galop Infernal, brought this American version to an appropriately nutty conclusion.

This production repeats today, as well as April 17 and 19.

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