Wednesday, September 11, 2013


ORPHÉE AUX  ENFERS (Orpheus in the Underworld) Jacques Offenbach (1819-80)


   This is not an opera,  but an operetta, or a “buffoon opera”, first staged in Paris in 1858.
   It has the same story as Gluck’s opera (and we hear a familiar quotation from it, when Orpheus sings briefly and insincerely of his loss of Eurydice) but it is entirely different.
    A cartoon from 1889 has a gentleman and his lady asking a coachman to take them to the theatre where Orfée is playing, The driver asks whether they want the one where you get bored (s’embête) or the one where you have fun (rigole, "revel").
    The twist in the Offenbach one is that Orpheus and Eurydice are no longer in love.
     Natalie Dessay (a young version from 1997) is the spirited and randy Eurydice.
    Subtitles are provided, but they disappear rapidly; no dozing allowed (or aloud).
    This version (from Lyon) is in two acts, but the longer four-act version is described here.
[1]  Thebes (in Greece, not Egypt)
    Public Opinion is asserting itself in squares all over the globe, and there is a stroppy woman speaking for it in this show.
    Eurydice has lost interest in her husband, and violently detests his violin music.
    Orpheus (Orphée in French) is not so much a singer or a lyrist, but a violinist; he is the director of the Thebes Academy of Music, and he is very friendly with his female students, and a nymph named Maquilla.
    They surprise each other as they come seeking their respective lovers. They quarrel, and he inflicts his violin concerto on her.
    Eurydice is enamoured of one Aristaeus (Aristée), an Arcadian shepherd and bee-keeper (so he is her honey man); in reality he is a fiend from the underworld, indeed the king of the infernal regions, Pluto himself.
    When Pluto reveals his true identity to her, and tells her he is abducting her, she realizes that she must die in order to accompany him. Yes, and he breaks into Italian (Lasciate ogni speranza, from Dante’s Inferno: Abandon all hope all ye who enter here).
   Orpheus has placed a snake in the cornfield where Eurydice  revels with her bucolic lover, and she dies of snakebite.
    She writes a message for her husband: I am leaving home (maison) because I am dead (morte), Aristaeus is Pluto (Pluton) and the devil takes me (emporte).Pluto says the rhyme is not rich, but anyway riches do not bring happiness (!).
    When Orpheus sees this he is delighted, but Public Opinion rebukes him; think of the scandal; and she drives him off to search for Eurydice.
[2] Mount Olympus
The gods are in the arms of Morpheus, as they say. Watch for the appearing of Cupid, Venus (and Mars should have an air, but has been left out this time); Diana (her Acteon has been turned into a deer; usually because he saw her in her bath); Juno accuses Jupiter of yet another infidelity, this time with Eurydice; Mercury reports the details of the abduction; Pluto arrives to deny it. Suddenly the gods revolt against Jupiter, chanting that they are sick of that sickly liqueur Nectar, and insipid Ambrosia, too.
   Jupiter’s escapades with women (Alcmena and Leda) are recounted.
    Orpheus and Public Opinion enter on the scene. Jupiter orders him to win back his wife, and to enforce this decree he will go to Hell himself. The gods tag along to taste the food Pluto has to offer.
[3] Pluto’s palace
Eurydice has been left alone by Pluto for only two days, but she is bored to tears, and is in danger of wishing to return to her husband. She is under the over-attentive care of a tedious servant named John Styx (usually played by an Englishman) who was formerly the King of Boeotia (Arcadia); he has tender feelings for his prisoner.  When the gods arrive he hides her away. But Jupiter wants to see her, and he appeals to a tribunal of judges and questions Cerberus, the dog who guards the door of Hades.
   (Incidentally, there is a theory that the features of the Grecian underworld, including Cerberus, the Gorgon Medusa with her serpents, and the maze are found in Peru, in an edifice dating from the European Bronze Age; Odysseus had to cross a vast ocean to reach it, and navigate a great river, presumably the Amazon.)
   They are all loyal to Pluto, and Jupiter has to use his thunder to restore order.
    Cupid intervenes, and calls in his police force. (Their chorus is not “the bold gendarmes”, “we run them in”.) When Jupiter has located her, he becomes a fly and gains entry through the keyhole. Eurydice is captivated by the beautiful insect, catches it, and kisses it. Jupiter reveals himself and promises to take her to Olympus.
    Pluto comes looking for the fly, and is surrounded by a ballet of them.
[4] Hades
By the river Styx, the gods of the higher and lower realms are engaged in a bacchanalian orgy, and Eurydice, in the guise of a bacchante, leads them in a hymn to Bacchus. She is waiting for an opportunity to sneak away with Jupiter, but Pluto is watching.
    Orpheus arrives to reclaim his bride and take her home; they had forgotten about him.  Jupiter puts the usual condition on him; no looking back till they get there. He is urged on by Public Opinion, but Jupiter sends an electric shock to make him turn around.
    Henceforth Eurydice will remain a bacchante, singing the praises of Bacchus as his ardent priestess.

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