Just how sharp or hard-hitting do you perceive the satire of operetta should be? This is the question that will largely decide how one might react to English National Opera’s new staging of Orpheus in the Underworld – which contains some of Offenbach’s most infectious and exuberant music. There is a wealth of music to choose from, and to include all the material from the two-Act and four-Act versions could make for a long and perhaps indigestible evening. Wisely, cuts are made yet inevitably some good material is absent.
The staging team opt to use the Overture to show an imagined back-story of the relationship of Eurydice and Orpheus to explain why their relationship is in crisis when we first meet them, including the tragic loss of their first child at birth. This rather distressing event casts a serious downer on the mood from the start. It is telling that the subsequent initial interjections from Public Opinion fail to generate much audience response as they should – good though the idea of having a London Cabbie as this voice of the populace is.
Part of the point of Offenbach’s original is that the boredom in the relationship of Orpheus and Eurydice is routine. That’s rather what Diana in her first aria is expressing, and why both Jupiter and Pluto are trying to find ways to ‘entertain’ themselves outside their eternal couplings. Yet somehow, despite all the busy routines and the jollity of the music, the more probing moments of the staging militate against the necessary lightness of the operetta form.
It’s difficult in a theatre the size of the Coliseum to ensure that the wit and bite of the text is heard, and this perhaps also causes Sian Edwards to adopt rather flaccid tempos for even the sprightliest vocal numbers depriving them of rhythmic verve and daredevil fun. The delights of Offenbach’s brilliant orchestration do not emerge with nearly enough clarity. Dialogue is somewhat stilted too as the singers have to fluctuate between speech amplification and natural singing voices, and there is loss of spontaneity as a result. It took Anne-Marie Owens’s first spoken utterances as a marvellously ripe Joan Sims-esque Juno to show what can be done with characterfully declaimed words, forceful presence and a sure-footed sense of timing.
By then it is almost too late, and anyway certain roles such as that of Mercury, are cut or reassigned. Similarly, Public Opinion is allocated to a baritone rather than the usual fruity mezzo-soprano.
At least the company has assembled a good ensemble of old pros and new blood, with interesting results. As Eurydice Mary Bevan has a fuller and far warmer voice than is often heard in the part, and this helps to make Emma Rice’s vision of the woman a rather more sympathetic one, albeit muting much of the flirtatious nature of the original conception. Indeed, without Bevan’s classy singing and commitment the evening could be even more dispiriting. Ed Lyon is a great foil to her, playing the nicest of the men she could have in her life. His Gluck ‘Che faro’ parody is a nicely judged vocal barb. Like Lyon, Alex Otterburn’s extrovert pantomime Pluto / Aristeus and Alan Oke’s grimy John Styx are both confident presences. Willard White’s still-resonant bass sounds great in the buzzing fly-duet with Eurydice but, unusually for him, in the early part of the show he is curiously detached. Idunnu Münch shows off a lustrous voice of huge promise as Diana, and Judith Howarth is a fiery Venus atop the vocal stave. Ellie Laugharne’s bright tones fall on the ear sweetly but her words are indecipherable. Lucia Lucas is an energetic Public Opinion.
The Chorus sings well and is tireless with the relentlessly busy, sometimes distracting, choreographic routines. “Help me! Somebody? Anybody?”, said Eurydice at the opening of the second half. “Quite” muttered someone audibly from a seat nearby, and not kindly.
- Performances until November 28