The second instalment of English National Opera’s Orpheus season is an operetta, and one of the most famous of all: Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld launched the genre internationally back in 1858, and has never really looked back.
Until now, that is.
In her first operatic assignment, Emma Rice is dissatisfied with it. In a programme interview, she insists that she wants it to be “a love story, not a hate story”; she also doesn’t find much of it funny – something of a problem in a comedy.
Her radical solution is to produce a new book with new lyrics by Tom Morris. During the overture she stages a back-history to the two main characters, showing Orpheus and Eurydice getting married, conceiving, and then having a baby who dies – explaining their fractured relationship, but scarcely containable within the anarchic frivolity of the original.
Usually the operetta is set in a kind of parody Arcadia. Offenbach’s satirical target, though, wasn’t so much ancient mythology as Napoleon III, his Empress, his mistresses, his court, and the French ruling class as a whole.
Rice might have decided to take aim at the here and now, but rather curiously she picks London in 1957 instead. When Eurydice is in the Underworld (alias Hell), she becomes a sex worker in a sleazy Soho bar called the Peep Show. During both renditions of the can-can, she’s sexually assaulted – including at the final curtain.
There’s an anger on display with which one might well have some sympathy, but we’re a long, long way from the spirit of a piece in which sexuality (and not merely from a male perspective) is celebrated to the point of out-and-out hedonism. Offenbach and his librettists were cynics, not moralists.
Ultimately the sheer extent of the alterations the piece has had to go through to jump through Rice’s hoops makes one wonder whether it has all been worthwhile. Why not simply reject this lightweight entertainment and counter-propose something more congenial?
There’s a commitment – intermittently, at least – from the cast and company that impresses; elsewhere, entire sequences hang fire (there’s no conviction to the lengthy scene on Mount Olympus, for instance), or else simply jar.
Musical and vocal values are nevertheless high, with both Mary Bevan’s Eurydice and Ed Lyon’s Orpheus on terrific form. Lucia Lucas fields a sterling baritone as Public Opinion – here an affable London cabbie with a somewhat improbable accent.
The various deities find excellent exponents in the shapes of Willard White (Jupiter), Alex Otterburn (Pluto), Anne-Marie Owens (Juno), Judith Howarth (Venus) and Keel Watson (Mars), among others.
Former company music director Sian Edwards returns to conduct a performance that gives Offenbach’s musical elegance its due; but whether the end result turns out to be the kind of operetta banker that can play to a full Coliseum season after season is another matter.