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A 1934 edition of The Oxford Companion to Music defined the can-can as a “boisterous and latterly indecorous dance, exploited in Paris for the benefit of such British and American tourists as will pay well to be well shocked.” Emma Rice’s production lacks the high-kicking chorus line and fluttering pantaloons traditionally associated with the infamous galup of the closing act, but it certainly delivers on indecorousness, exploitation, and shock factor.
Offenbach’s farcical take on the Orpheus myth- memorable for its salacious plot as much as its celebrated tunes- demands inventive staging, and equally imaginative interpretation. Tom Morris’s translation is peppered with topical references from the issue of consent to golden showers (you know, the kind that Jupiter lavished on Danae), and unfolds against a wildly varied and often surreal set. A tragic backstory to Eurydice and Orpheus’s fractious marriage was mimed on an economically-furnished stage, more reminiscent of a school play than the London Coliseum until a full-size black cab hoved into view stage left. This addition to the original narrative was the first of many artistic decisions that placed Eurydice at the centre of the drama, and emphasised her victimisation in a tale that became progressively sinister enough to cut through the jolly debauchery around her.
The opera’s irreverent premise turns the conventionally tragic Greek myth on its head in favour of marital discord and bibulous deities. Offenbach’s Eurydice is tormented by her obnoxious, fiddle-scraping husband Orpheus- portrayed by Ed Lyon with a heady blend of indolence, narcissism, and tenor charm- and strays into the arms of the musclebound, tank top-sporting local shepherd. Unfortunately, he turns out to be Pluto, King of Hades- a charismatic and charming Alex Otterburn, who stole the first act as he sauntered around in glittery devil’s horns and blond wig, gyrating on his co-star while delivering the improbably-translated line ‘oh look at me please, all covered in bees from nape to nipple’. Orpheus’s excitement at her death is dampened by the intervention of Public Opinion, who demands that he descend to Hades to rescue her despite the collapse of their relationship: ‘we were on a break!’, moans Orpheus, in one of the show’s manifold pop culture references. Americans will rejoice in Lucia Lucas’s turn as Public Opinion, in which she brings a rich baritone and an unlikely Midwestern accent to a character styled as a fag-chuffing black cab driver. Offenbach’s themes of dysfunctional marriage, an amoral upper class, and the perils of debauchery revelry are each explored with a thoughtful and topical twist in this humorous and startling spectacle.
Initially intended as a parody of Napoleon III’s court at the Tuileries, the opera depicts a Jupiter just as perverted as his hellish counterpart, pursuing mortals for “non consensual sex” in full view of his jealous wife Juno and the other gods. Offenbach’s production received an initially lukewarm reception when it opened in 1858 and was only saved by a review which termed it “blasphemous” and accused the composer of profaning “holy and glorious antiquity”; it is a work which has historically derived its commercial success, and thus perhaps its place in the canon, from scandal and sex appeal. Rice’s production is keen to confront the opera’s chequered past, and the narratives of female exploitation that underpin it, portraying a seedy underbelly of Olympus where the gods mingle with trench coat-wearing perverts at a peep show.
Sir Willard White portrayed a suitably entitled Jupiter, puffing a cigar in shades and a Versace shirt as he dropped zingers like ‘come on Jupey, let’s get seductive’, and Keel Watson provided a rich bass and comedic effect as machine gun-wielding Mars, draped in camo and a bathrobe. But despite the range of talent on display, Mary Bevan stole the show as Eurydice. Targeted by Orpheus, Pluto, and Jupiter alike, her character bore not only their attention but that of the audience; she portrayed the character’s transformation from flippant, philandering wife to prisoner of Hades with a pathos that cut through the disco lights and sequin-clad classical fantasia
In the pit, Sian Edwards coaxed serenades, dances, and satirical musical quotes from Gluck’s Orpheus from the orchestra with dexterity; she was well served by Etta Murfitt’s choreography, imaginatively realised by the chorus, who provided everything from silken bass harmony to convincing sheep imitations. The scene of the hellish revels and infamous can-can, however, belonged once again to Ms Bevan: she was the only person on stage doing the full knees-up with astonishing vigour, considering that she was singing while clad in a corset and high heels.
The satirical sting of this opera, originally conceived as a jab at a philandering, nationalist, floppy-haired dictator, is as pungent as ever in Brexit Britain.
Emma Rice’s Operatic debut with Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO is playful and exhilarating but tinged with vulgarity, it has #MeToo coursing through its veins. It was no surprise to learn that Rice had upended the entire Operetta, given her controversial reputation. No doubt some will argue that this production was a deficient reimagination of the original great work, but I believe her interpretation is raw and relevant. This was far from a perfect performance – the comedy often fell flat, the singers looked borderline exhausted, and the entire first act felt rushed and dull. However, there is much to gain from seeing this performance, even if at times Rice’s ideas felt shoehorned into the shape of Offenbach’s satirical Operetta. Not only are there outstanding performances from Eurydice (Mary Bevan), Pluto (Alex Otterburn) and Jupiter (Willard White) but the design of both the costumes and the set (Lez Brotherston and Lizzie Clachan) were striking and provocative. These elements came together to deliver an insistent but crucial message, why is violence against women still seen as something to laugh about?
In 1858, a critic wrote that Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld was “a profanation of holy and glorious antiquity”. It is a cynic’s take on the hedonistic high society world of Napoleon the Third and of the appropriated classicism of nineteenth century France. The original story details a loveless, spiteful marriage between Eurydice and Orpheus (Ed Lyon). When Pluto decides he wants Eurydice to himself, he kills her. Orpheus is relieved but Public Opinion (Lucia Lucas) makes him go to Olympus to ask Jupiter for her return. In Rice’s production the story is somewhat rose tinted, the divide in the marriage is caused by the stillbirth of their child and Eurydice runs to Pluto because of the hurt she is feeling rather than in the lustful pursuit of pleasure. Although this all adds to Rice’s feminist perspective, this does mean there is little hilarity to the relationship dynamics between Eurydice and Orpheus, and it leaves the first act feeling limp and unimaginative.
Lizzie Clachan’s set for Mount Olympus in act two was wonderful, the thought of the gods of ancient Rome slowly being wracked with boredom against the backdrop of a 1950s swimming pool was oddly satisfying. Lez Brotherston’s costumes for this section were superb as well, from Cupid’s light up trainers (Ellie Laugharne), to Mars’s camouflage and rifle (Keel Watson), it suggested a level of hedonistic superiority found both in the references to classical religion and in the current corrupt world of show business superpowers. The reconciliation between the heavy moral message and tight comedy is pulled off better here. This is where Emma Rice’s wonderful and ridiculous vision shines through best, especially when Orpheus floats up to heaven in a Black cab fastened to helium balloons, demanding to an audience with Jupiter.
Alex Otterburn’s portrayal of Pluto, with his twisted and cheeky personality radiating from his performance, was the highlight of the first two acts. It was fun, bold and brilliantly contrasted to Willard White’s performance as Jupiter. White’s booming baritone is enough to make his presence on stage imposing, however the sight of Jupiter vaping throughout was a stroke of genius. Not only were his actions intentionally self-serving, but he also looked like an egotistical corrupt millionaire. There was no ambiguity in the portrayal of Jupiter as the real villain rather than Pluto, he uses his power in a distinctly cruel and indulgent way. The difference between anarchy and cruelty is the unmistakable contrast between these two characters. This was one of the more successful aspects of Rice’s interpretation, the suggestion being that the real culprit for the wrong Eurydice faces is the one pulling all the strings.
Acts three and four are both set in a peep show, and here is when the vulgarity of the gods shines in its true glory. Not only does Pluto lock Eurydice up, but Jupiter proceeds to coerce her into having sex with him. It was important for Rice to lean into the ultimate vulgarity of these acts, displayed in the dinginess of the set and Eurydice’s ultimate distress. It would be hard to reconcile Emma Rice’s interpretation with Offenbach’s original production without acknowledging the change in attitude towards women. It is here where Mary Bevan stands out as a brilliant performer, her confusion, frustration, re-found love for her husband and her complete vulnerability in the hands of the gods were all expressed in her emotional portrayal of Eurydice.
Perhaps it is the difference between directing theatre and directing opera that Rice found difficult to negotiate, but this performance did feel unbalanced in the relationship between tragedy and comedy. Regular opera goers will probably find this version of Orpheus too different to take seriously, but as a complete performance the piece is both fun and obscene. The final moments of the play where Pluto and Jupiter shake hands after Eurydice has been promised to the crude and creepy Bacchus was utterly chilling. The understanding between them being completely transparent, the hurt they caused is of no consequence, after all, it was only a girl.
Putting on Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld today is not straightforward. First, a potential lack of familiarity on the part of the audience with the Greek and Roman mythology that are being parodied with the result that a feeling of subversiveness is lost. So it was clever of ENO to have warmed up with this second of four Orpheus operas by giving us Gluck’s version of the story first.
Second, the sexual hypocrisy of 19th century Paris, when the social priority was public respectability rather than personal fulfilment is different now. As well as making the concerns of myth and 19th century Paris matter to an audience, a producer has to do so in a way that is funny as well as subversive, provides a good show, and skewers contemporary behaviour where it hurts, whilst maintaining a lightness of touch without imparting a sense that this doesn’t really matter.
Many of these difficulties also exist with Offenbach’s British equivalent, Gilbert and Sullivan, but it’s made worse here by the casual assumption- so pervasive in this work that it doesn’t even have to be articulated -that women are just there to respond to male desires. There are a few easy digs at patriarchy but it leaves untouched the assumption that it’s men’s feelings that are important, and rather like Iolanthe has you feeling that some things – no matter how ridiculous they may be – are beyond the reach of satire.
At this point one might feel that director Emma Rice’s task is as impossible as Ginger Rogers’s: to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. But her bold rewrite – with some virtuoso inventive enjoyable direction makes it work as a piece of theatre. Racial surgery is often what Offenbach needs – one of the most successful versions I’ve seen was a reworking of La Belle Helene at the Scoop, which made it all about rival Greek restaurant chains.
Rice rewrites the opera so that it is primarily about Eurydice, which draws the sting from the piece’s misogyny (although those sex pest Olympians retain their insinuatingly seductive and glamorous music). She gives Orpheus and Eurydice some back story during the overture, with Eurydice traumatised by the death of her baby – not part of the original myth but not a problem – that explains why she is at odds with her husband, as well as vulnerable to the advances of Aristaeus/Pluto. Rice sets it in the late 1950s, which means that the references to bees can be reinforced by beehive hairdos for the women, and hell can be depicted as a network of Soho porn shops and strip joints. This works well until the very end, where, despite intelligent bravura staging, it feels like there should be something more to come than Eurydice having to remain behind in this ghastly place. This is perhaps Rice’s point, but it left you strangely deflated (which may again be her point).
One could say that Rice sentimentalises the piece – the lovers aren’t meant to be any more likeable than anyone else, and, in the original are as satisfied as everyone else by the final outcome, which means that they can have a de facto divorce and please themselves – or at least Orpheus can. It’s simply assumed that Eurydice’s wishes are met by passing her from male to male (There’s a reason, perhaps, why there isn’t a word for insouciance in English).
Rice has a fine cast to help her, along with Sian Edwards’ exhilarating conducting which provided the right level of diabolical frenzy when appropriate without ever being heavy handed. Mary Bevan’s Eurydice had a winning stage presence, as a modern woman at sea with sexism, even if occasionally her singing made you aware of what a fiendishly demanding part this is. Ed Lyon was bland and nerdy as Orpheus in exactly the right way. Turning Public Opinion into a taxi driver was a master stroke. Lucia Lucas was completely convincing – both vocally and dramatically – as a man in the part. It was actually rather a shock to discover that she is a woman offstage. History was being made by the first transgender singer to perform for ENO, but, as is often the way with history, you didn’t really notice it at the time.
The rest of the cast was a pleasing mixture of familiar faces and formidably effective performers. These included Judith Howarth (Venus), Anne-Marie Owens (Juno), Alan Oke (John Styx), and a former Wotan, Sir Willard White, playing Jupiter as a sonorous spliff smoking gangsta to dangerous but hilarious effect and some impressively talented newcomers, especially a nastily macho, charismatic, and full voiced Pluto (turned into the Devil with horns, a tail and flames on his costume) from Alex Otterburn, and a glamorous Diana from Idunnu Münch.
Orpheus and Eurydice, which had its debut last week, was borderline dry. But perhaps it was a necessary drought leading up to the absolute monsoon of Orpheus in the Underworld. A burlesque twist on the original myth, Offenbach’s 19th century operetta is a witty parody of Gluck’s romantic tragedy; and Rice’s take this season has given it yet another twist of her own. Leaving not a single face in the Coliseum without a grin, this hilarious performance truly was a debaucherous laughter-binge.
Rejuvenated for a contemporary rather than Victorian audience, the direction of our laughter is flipped towards the absurdity of gods’ barbarism, and of misogynistic abuse of power in general. It should not be funny that the gods can do whatever they please; rightfully, instead it is funny to the feminist viewer how ridiculous the gods appear through their perverted, manipulative and downright creepy pursuit of Eurydice. Rice in no way lets them get away with it. At one point, Jupiter, is called out for his ‘seedy antics’ and being a ‘sex fiend’.
A key ingredient of the humour to this zesty dish was the Brechtian approach. I felt guestlisted to join the party, but simultaneously I was peering in through the window. This fundamental distance from the stage enabled us to take a step back, and identify the social realities portrayed. For starters, the breakdown of Orpheus and Eurydice’s marriage. In Gluck, their infallible romance is torn apart by the tragedy of Eurydice’s descend into the Underworld. In this parody, their relationship is thrown onto the rocks. Sick and tired of each other, Eurydice has an affair with who she believes to be a shepherd, but turns out to be Pluto in disguise. When he kidnaps her, Orpheus hails it as a relief, is unwilling to rescue his wife. The dialogues between the two ‘lovers’ wittily and relatable-y captures why.
Bridging the gap between the chorus, characters and the audience was Public Opinion – or “Knowledge”, as he prefers to call himself. Driving around in a black cab, and whipping out a deck chair and newspaper, he would be spotted relaxing in the backdrop of all the drama. Although strictly only supposed to advise and comment, he stretched boundaries and was kept in check by the characters.
Our eyes were spoiled rotten by the constant influx of vibrant props, costumes and set designs. There was never a dull moment, and every minute was unmissable.
Confetti, bubbles, glitter, smoke, balloons, and yet more balloons, at times it felt like inside the red and white-striped tent of a touring circus. From clouds, to tutus, to sheep, balloons were everywhere. The explosive arbitrariness made for surprise after surprise.
Seemingly univocal props were comedically and cleverly flipped into unforeseen new uses, keeping us all guessing.
Pluto, the outrageously flamboyant and mischievous god of the Underworld, stole the show. Strutting around his briefcase conspicuously labeled ‘DISGUISES’, his mission is to temporarily relieve himself from the monotony of idealism. Much to the mortal human race’s dismay, his method for this is playing with us like rag dolls.
Fantasise boundless thrills hopping between white fluffy clouds when you picture heaven? Not quite. Arriving on a massive swimming pool-themed apparatus, the gods have all the shallow desires fulfilled. Butlers serve them however many pornstar martinis as they desire. Privilege may be advantageous, but only for the first few eternities. From that point onwards, it is a ‘miserable paradise’. They are bored. Bored of the pleasant yet mundane heaven. So, the gods descend down to this hedonistic ‘hell’ for its supreme partying. The Underworld, rather than an infernal chasm of despair, is a basement cabaret club bearing the glowing Soho-esque red letters ‘PEEP SHOW’.
And then, the scene we had all been waiting for: the Infernal Gallop. Launched into the popular spotlight through its adoption by the Parisian Moulin Rouge to accompany the familiar Can Can, it has become impossible to resist incorporating this vigorous dance into an adaptation of this operetta. Excluded from the fun, unfortunately, is Eurydice; for her, it is a genuine hell. Manipulated, kidnapped and humiliated, she is incarcerated in the Underworld. Here, she is squeezed into a corset and forced onto the platform at a cabaret show, where she is mistreated by the sleazy gods.
All in all, I am shocked by the critically average ratings of this daring twist of a twist of a twist. Orpheus in the Underworld striked a sensational balance between analysis of sociological standards, classical mythology, and hilariously creative silliness.