Monday 7 October 2019

Orpheus goes to Hell: Emma Rice's lively new production somewhat misses the point of Offenbach

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mary Bevan, Alan Oke - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mary Bevan, Alan Oke - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Jacques Offenbach Orpheus in the Underworld; Mary Bevan, Ed Lyon, Lucia Lucas, Alex Otterburn, dir: Emma Rice, cond: Sian Edwards; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Whilst musically full of good things, this heavy-handed re-working of Offenbach's operetta lacks the wit and pacing of the original

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Alex Otterburn, Keel Watson - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld
Alex Otterburn, Keel Watson
English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
English National Opera debuted the second of its Orpheus-themed operas at the London Coliseum on Saturday 5 October 2019, with Emma Rice making her operatic debut directing Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers), with Mary Bevan as Eurydice, Ed Lyon as Orpheus,  Lucia Lucas as Public Opinion, Willard White as Jupiter, Anne-Marie Owens as Juno, Ellie Laugharne as Cupid, Idunnu Munch as Diana, Judith Howarth as Venus, Keel Watson as Mars, Alan Oke as John Styx and Alex Otterburn as Pluto. Set design was by Lizzie Clachan, with costumes by Lez Brotherston, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth and choreography by Etta Murfitt. Sian Edwards conducted.

Offenbach wrote Orpheus in the Underworld in 1858. It was his first full length operetta, and written for his tiny Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. The theatre had around 900 seats, and whilst Offenbach did expand the operetta in 1874, it is the original which works best and in a small theatre. As English National Opera has found before, the London Coliseum is rather too large a space to perform operetta easily. Emma Rice's highly theatrical style of direction would have seemed an apt choice for this operetta. At the work's previous incarnation in St Martin's Lane, the scabrous designs were by Gerald Scarfe and Public Opinion was got up like Margaret Thatcher.

The operetta satirises Gluck's Orpheus opera and the general tendency to treat mythological subjects seriously, by having the gods behaving badly and by asking the question what happens if Orpheus and Eurydice can't stand each other? What if Orpheus does not want his wife back, and Eurydice finds Hell rather fun? Offenbach and his librettists satirise this with wit and gaiety, sending up the terrible behaviour in delightful ways.

Unfortunately, Emma Rice seems to have missed the point that operetta needs to be fun, and that in Offenbach the music and drama have to satirise and make fun of something. Perhaps it would be difficult to bring off the 1858 operetta with its original book, but Rice's solution was to take the plot seriously. She removes the twist. In her version, Orpheus and Eurydice are a nice couple in love who lose a baby (during the truncated overture), he does want her back, Hell is hell, in fact it is a rather dirty peep show and Jupiter and Pluto's treatment of Eurydice is simply horrible. When do we laugh please?

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mount Olympus - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
It doesn't help that the pacing of the piece is terribly slow. Emma Rice has re-written the English book whilst Tom Morris has produced some witty, if overly contemporary sounding, lyrics. But it does not help if the dialogue is leadenly delivered; Act One seemed endless despite some musical delights. The Gods themselves are sometimes fun, and their opening scene (they are living on a what seems to be a celestial cruise ship) was full of good moments. But the second half goes badly awry, as Rice's polemical plot and Offenbach's music increasingly diverge.

Eurydice is being sexually assaulted by a series of older men, can-can anyone?

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Willard White - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the UnderworldWillard White
English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
The frustration was that this was often beautifully sung. Musically there were many delights. The programme book was rather coy on exactly which version we were hearing. Clearly the orchestra was far bigger than that Offenbach wrote the 1858 version for and it was billed as being in four Acts (the original version was in two, the 1874 in four). But there was little or none of the extra material written for 1874.  It would have been nice to have known. And, the overture was trimmed.

But beyond these annoyances there was much to enjoy musically. Ed Lyon brought a naive charm to Orpheus, making him a bit dim but rather lovely and making you wish that Offenbach had given the character more to do. As his long-suffering wife, Mary Bevan was very touching and rather moving in the refocused role of Eurydice.

Lucia Lucas (a transgender woman baritone, something of a first on a major UK operatic stage) did her best with Public Opinion (transformed from Orpheus' mother into a male cabbie), but could not disguise the fact that much of her material simply wasn't very funny.

Alex Otterburn, a ENO Harewood Young Artist, gave a career defining performance as Pluto, effortlessly charming, devilish and able to fill the London Coliseum with personality whether singing or speaking. He showed how it should be done, this Pluto combined bad behaviour, with wit and charm. As his side-kick John Styx, Alan Oke was wonderfully down at heel, seedy and sleazy, yet not a little sad with a poignant account of his aria (though why Béotie was turned into Poland, I am not sure). To emphasise the point in the final scene, Bacchus (Peter Willcock from the ENO Chorus), who gets Eurydice in the end, was not a young god, but an old roue, effectively Silenus.

The Gods on Olympus were, by and large, a complete delight. Mercure had disappeared, his lines taken by Ellie Laugharne's Cupid. The success of the Olympus scene was partly down to the strength of the casting. Willard White (in alarming wig and Versace leisure gear) was a great fun as Jupiter, even when behaving badly he knew how to lighten the mix, with Anne-Marie Owens as a Juno straight out of a Keeping Up Appearances. Judith Howarth brought off the aging Marilyn Monroe look brilliantly as Venus, lovely to hear her on the stage again, with Keel Watson as laid back Mars in another truly alarming wig. ENO Harewood Artist Idunnu Munch was promising as Diana, but needed more help in making the character count. Ellie Laugharne as Cupid, wore gold hot pants brilliantly and showed how to work the role with charm in this big space.

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mary Bevan, Lucia Lucas - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mary Bevan, Lucia Lucas - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
The chorus worked hard, they have to be bees, clouds, sheep and more and here the designs (with their extensive use of balloons) were very imaginative and the chorus' performances were to match. Their slick profesionalism shows that, given the right material and the right direction, ENO had the wonderful wherewithal to make operetta work. In the pit, Sian Edwards and the orchestra accompanied with a lightness which was often lacking in the dramatic presentation.

A another minor moan, whilst Orphée was rightly referred to as Orpheus throughout, Eurydice was pronounced neither in the French nor the English manner, but in the Italian?

Emma Rice does have a point, the original book is tricky and #metoo is simply not funny. But Offenbach and his librettists tackled some near the knuckle subjects, satirising 19th century French society and enabling people to laugh at themselves. It helped that both music and words skewered their subjects with wit. It is a shame that Rice and Morris could not have found a way to make their point with pacing and wit, somewhere along the way they have forgotten that Offenbach was never polemical, he made his point by never seeming to take things too seriously.

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Alex Otterburn, Judith Howarth, Idunnu Munch - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Alex Otterburn, Judith Howarth, Ellie Laugharne, Idunnu Munch
English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
To say this was something of a missed opportunity is something of an understatement. There is enough to enjoy in the production that you wish that something could be done about the pacing, and the disastrously schizophrenic tone of the fine scenes.

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