UWM Opera: "Orpheus in the Underworld"
If there is one thing rarer than a large opera company doing Orfeo et Euridice,
it is to find a company of any size doing a full performance of Jacques Offenbach's 1858 operetta Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphee aux Enfers).
So, when we saw that the Opera of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was putting on a "fully-staged" production, we had to go, and made our way to the Zelazo Center the evening of January 31.Orpheus in the Underworld
may be the first classical, full-length operetta, but it set the tone of being mildly scandalous and satirical that carried into many later operettas such as Die Fledermaus
and The Merry Widow.
The libretto, by Ludovic Halévy (later revised by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux) lampoons both Gluck's Orfeo
and French mores
of the time
Far from being the obsessed lovers of myth, as the story opens we find Orpheus and Eurydice bored with one another (and she most of all bored with his music, which he cares for more than her) and seeking opportunities to sneak off to their respective lovers. They catch one another in the act and an argument ensues, in which Orpheus, hypocritically objecting to Eurydice's unfaithfulness, reveals that he has set a trap for her lover, the shepherd Aristeus. Eurydice rushes to warn Aristeus, but is fatally bitten by the snake Orpheus left for him, and dies. Aristeus reveals himself as the god Pluto and gleefully carries Eurydice off to his domain, but not before leaving a mocking note for the musician. Orpheus is initially overjoyed at this, until Public Opinion enters and demands that he petition the gods for the return of his "beloved."
On Olympus, things are not happy. The gods are bored with their existence, their food, and Jupiter's petty and bourgeoisie tyranny. He has a revolt on his hands until distractions occur: news that a young woman has been abducted by a god (Juno accuses Jupiter); the news that Pluto is the culprit; and the advent of Orpheus and Public Opinion demanding Eurydice's return. The gods en masse depart to Pluto's domain to "investigate."
Back in Hades, Eurydice alternates being bored at Pluto's absence and exasperated fending off the advances of John Styx, Pluto's boorish servant. Jupiter, scouting ahead of the party, desires Eurydice, and allows Cupid to transform him into a fly in order to get into her chambers. He seduces her, and then conspires to sneak her out of Hades disguised as one of Bacchus' followers.
However, the disguise doesn't work, and Pluto and Jupiter have to yield Eurydice to the reluctant Orpheus, who is determined to put a good face on things for the sake of Public Opinion. Hoping to win Eurydice back, Jupiter sets the condition that Orpheus must not turn back until they reach the upper world. Jupiter then makes sure Orpheus will fail, by delivering a stinging lightning bolt to the musician's backside. Eurydice foils both Jupiter and Pluto by putting herself under Bacchus' protection, and becoming one of his carefree bacchantes in truth. A celebratory dance (the galop infernal, better known as the "Can-can") ends the operetta.
Saying this production was "fully staged" was only a bit of a stretch: such sets as there were were absolutely minimal, but cleverly used and adequate for the purpose. Costuming (consisting largely of nightwear and lingerie) might have been, and probably was, assembled from the singers' closets. Exceptions were Orpheus, whose outfit, with Greek cap and violin, made him look like a Fiddler on the Roof cast member; Pluto, who had a nice rockabilly lounge-lizard wardrobe; and Jupiter's clever "fly" disguise.
The production made use of a clever English translation by Colin Cabot, originally done for Milwaukee's Skylight Opera in 1981, which was very witty and funny. Musical direction by Wiliam Lavondis worked very well for both the cast and the orchestra, lead by Motoaki Kashino. Kurt Ollman was once again stage director, and provided a show that was more fluid and lively than some recent productions.
The cast of senior and graduate voice students were generally well up to the music and did well with it. Our Orpheus (some lead roles were double cast) had the weakest voice of the lot, being drowned out by anyone else who was singing on stage with him. He made up a lot, though, by wonderfully funny and expressive acting that got his role across when the voice did not. Susan Wiedemeyer as Eurydice had a lovely voice and expressed her character's frustrations very well. Nick Brightly as the pompous but randy Jupiter, and Ian Toohil as the louche Pluto sang excellently and took turns hamming it up shamelessly, as was appropriate for the roles. A real star turn was that of Joe Fransee who danced the role of Bacchus, exulting that Eurydice has chosen him (Paul Thomasen sang Bacchus' part). Imagine a very athletic male ballet pas d'ane done ala "drunken master" style kung-fu and you will have the effect.
Unlike Gluck's opera, Offenbach's cast includes all the well-known gods and some lesser: Venus, Diana, Cupid, Juno, Minerva, Pomona, Hebe, Flora, Mercury, Apollo, Saturn, Vulcan, Neptune, and Mars in addition to the already named, who are the chorus but most of whom get a brief solo turn, many in the second act "mocking song" where the gods upbraid Jupiter for his infidelities.
We, and evidently the rest of the audience, thought it was all a lot of fun and enjoyed it thoroughly. I would recommend that anyone who cares for operetta or music theater at all see a performance of Orpheus in the Underworld if you get a chance.