Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux Enfers)

Presented by State Opera of SA by arrangement with Opera Australia
Reviewed Saturday 25th August 2012

This production is a revision of the 2003 Opera Australia production of Jacques Offenbach’s comic operetta that was then conceived by Ignatius Jones. This work draws on the Orpheus myth, in which his wife Eurydice is taken to Hell and Orpheus goes after her to bring her back, finds her, and is warned not to look back as she follows him back to Earth. He looks back just too soon, at the point where he is on Earth again, but she is still standing on the road from Hell, and he loses her.

In Offenbach’s satirical adaptation, however, they are not at all in love, with her playing around with the local beekeeper, and him glad to see the back of her when she is taken. It is nothing like the serious versions in the operas of Monteverdi, Gluck, or Birtwhistle, and even Ovid, or Virgil would be hard pushed to recognise the story in this outstandingly hilarious version. Offenbach’s opera bouffe was actually a parody of Gluck’s opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, commenting on the social mores and double standards of his day, and this updated version does just that.

As the first few notes of the Overture rang out, showing yet again the supreme quality of our Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, I already started to get a good feeling about this production, cemented shortly after by that lyrical oboe solo. The Orchestra, this time conducted by CEO and Artistic Director of State Opera, Timothy Sexton, never faltered for a second throughout the performance.

The end of the Overture is interrupted by Popular Opinion, embodied into an imposing character played by the always popular mezzo-soprano, Elizabeth Campbell, who states her position and views on society, getting the laughs started right from the beginning. Campbell doesn’t miss a trick in the role and, naturally, sings up a storm to the delight of the audience.

When the curtain was raised and the singing started, I began to get a sneaking suspicion that this was not quite a direct translation from the original libretto. I don’t think that they had predictive text, or Christopher Pine, back in the second half of the 19th Century. Joking aside, this rewritten libretto is by the multi-talented Jonathon Biggins, collaborating with Philip Scott. Biggins also made his debut as a director with this work and he certainly knows what he is doing in that capacity. The production is fast past paced, riveting, and absolutely hilarious. The laughs come thick and fast and there is plenty of movement, colour, and excitement that just does not let up.

We begin in Arcadian Thebes, where Eurydice has been seduced by Aristæus, her next door neighbour, a shepherd and producer of honey. She has regular dalliances with him, having tired of her husband, the rather vain and self-important music teacher, Orpheus. She admits her infidelity and, worse, tells him that she cannot stand his music. She hides a snake in the grass planning to lead her husband that way so that he is bitten and dies. There is, though, another snake in the grass as Aristæus is actually the god, Pluto, the ruler of Hades. He leads her to the snake, which bites her and, when she dies he takes her to Hades with him. Orpheus is greatly relieved, until he is confronted by Public Opinion and has to climb Mt. Olympus to beg Jupiter the Lord of the gods, to help him get her back.

Adam Goodburn is a local favourite, with great comic timing, and he is a perfect choice for the role of Orpheus. There is no doubting his feelings towards Eurydice, and his relief at her death and departure is unmistakable, as is his reluctance to get her back. Goodburn brings out all of the humour that he can find in the role of Orpheus, not only in his dialogue and the songs, but with fine physicality as well.

Amelia Farrugia plays Eurydice, making her a lusty woman with a voracious sexual appetite, and an acid tongue where Orpheus is concerned. We soon find that she is always looking across the fence to greener grass and, having gone to Hell with Pluto, she soon tires of life, or would it be death, in that location. She really is the wife from Hell.

As the bucolic Aristæus, David Hobson is deviously seductive, with a pretty good West Country accent to boot. His transformation into the god, Pluto, brought a few gasps and applause as he suddenly stood in the jaws of Hell where, moments before was a corn field. His Pluto is bold and dismissive of the other gods, sure of his own powers and abilities. Hobson gives us that enormous self-belief in his characterisation, strutting and posing, and even looking down his nose at the others.

At his point it should, perhaps, be mentioned that the ancient Greeks saw their gods as powerful and magical, but with all of the faults, failings and foibles of humans, and a propensity to interfere with the lives of men and women. They had dysfunctional families and unhappy marriages, just like mortals, as well as carnal urges and a lack of fidelity. They were quite happy to engage in debauchery, drunkenness, cheating and lying, just like those on earth. They were easy for the ordinary person to relate to.

In Olympus, Jupiter, sung and performed wonderfully by Douglas McNicol, attempts to reign over a group of self-interested and sometimes surly and revolutionary gods. McNicol presents us with a lecher who feigns indignation when accused of philandering with some marvellous blustering.

As the court sleeps, three of his children, Venus, Catriona Barr, Cupid, Joanna McWaters, and Mars, Andrew Collis, slip in quietly, not wishing to be caught returning from a night of revelry, but another daughter, Diana the Huntress, Deborah Caddy, ruins it by winding on her horn as she too returns, in a thoroughly foul mood. Although these roles are minor principals, there has been no lack of careful consideration in casting and these four performers contribute a great deal to the performance.

Diana was been chasing after a young man named Actæon, who has vanished, and Jupiter admits that he has turned the lad into a stag, as gods should not be cavorting with mortals. He is a fine one to talk, as his wife, Juno, immediately accuses him of being involved with Eurydice, he being the most obvious candidate, based on past experience, but he denies it. Sally-Anne Russell does a great job as the long suffering wife, but she does not suffer in silence as she can give him a most unpleasant time with her suspicions and a nagging tongue. Russell finds every bit of comedy in the role and explores all of its possibilities in a rib tickling performance.

As the trigger happy Mars, Andrew Collis is imposing and exudes power, in a sort of pompous, slightly vacuous, side-splitting way. One begins to see an ancient Greek ancestor of Major Bloodnok, one of the main characters in The Goon Show, all bravado but, if the enemy actually appeared, one wonders how much of it is just front that would quickly evaporate.

Mercury, Stephen Smith, returns from a mission to discover who is really the guilty party, and that entrance you just have to see for yourself, quickly telling everybody that Pluto is the culprit. Pluto arrives and tries, unsuccessfully, to distract Jupiter with flattery. After a short rebellion against Jupiter by the other gods, Orpheus and Public Opinion turn up, demanding justice. Jupiter agrees and insists that he will personally go to Hades to get her, at which announcement all of the other gods, bored with Olympic life, insist on joining him as Hades is a fun place to visit.

In Hades, Eurydice is bathing, and moaning about the conditions, attended by John Styx, who has been dead so long that he is getting mouldy and taking on a green hue. He tells her that he, too, loves her, but is rejected. Mark Oates is very funny indeed as the decaying servant, remembering his former glory. He hides her when the gods are heard approaching, with Jupiter calling for the Judges of the Dead, Eachus, Andrew Turner, Minos, Nicholas Lock, and Rhadamanthus, Jeremy Tatchell. Jupiter is decidedly unimpressed when they find him guilty. The three judges add another level of visual humour to the production, and that is all I am going to say on the subject. A ticket will enable you to see what I mean.

She is eventually discovered by the Love Police, played by Daniel Goodburn, Norbert Hohl, Andrew Linn and James Scott. Cupid transforms Jupiter into a fly so that he can get through a keyhole to reach her. He promptly seduces her into going with him to Olympus disguised as a Bacchante, a follower of the god of wine, Bacchus. Bacchanalian orgies are, apparently, appealing to her, and so she agrees.

The gods, and the demons of Hades, are having a wild party together, dancing the Galop Infernal, better known now as the music for the Can Can, a dance yet to be invented in Offenbach’s day. Jupiter tries to sneak her away, but is caught and reminded of his judgement that she is to return with Orpheus. He agrees but warns Orpheus not to look back. The crafty old fox has not yet given up, and he hurls a thunderbolt after Orpheus which, naturally, causes him to look around to see what is going on, thereby losing Eurydice, who is then made a genuine Bacchante. This is, of course, a happy ending for just about everybody.

The State Opera Chorus was in top form, musically, but they can also act, with individual characters observable and bits of stage ‘business’ going on that is worth watching for. The fact that Timothy Sexton is the chorus master, as well as the conductor, no doubt had much to do with the excellent integration of all of the musical components of this production, and let us not forget that Offenbach’s superb score is the basis for all of the hilarity.

Mark Thompson’s set and costumes are quite amazing, blending ancient Greece with modern Australia. The giveaway is the use of corrugated iron in the building of Thebes, with the home of Aristæus sporting a rainwater tank on the roof. Olympus and Hades are also distinctly quirky, and the costumes would be at home in any good fantasy hero comic. The fabulous wigs are another thing that you have to see to believe. John Rayment’s lighting takes the sets and costumes up another level, and Amber Hobson choreographed the production, adding some brilliant touches. By the end of the evening, you will have seen where Gilbert and Sullivan found the prototype for their comic operettas.

State Opera have found a winning approach to Offenbach’s operetta that is sure to win friends and influence people, but be prepared for aching ribs, because this production will have you laughing your head off. This is a credit to everybody involved and it has everything that you would wish for, and more, in a night out. You might just want to see it twice.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

State Opera web site

Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: 7:30pm Tues 28th, Thurs 30th Aug, and Sat 2nd Sept 2012
Duration: 2hr 30mins (intvl 20mins)
Tickets: adult $55-175/conc $45-145
Bookings: BASS 131 246 or online here

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