Orpheus in the Underworld

Thu 2nd – Fri 3rd February 2012

reviews

Daniel Malcolm

at 02:36 on 3rd Feb 2012

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Orpheus in the Underworld is unusually a spoof of the same genre of which it is a classic; New Chamber Opera’s production is a tribute to both its satirical and the artistic merits. Amidst a hell of a lot of very English puns about the underworld, the Frenchness of the original is preserved as well: the gods start a revolution over their diet of nectar and ambrosia on Olympus (‘Down with nectar – vive the revolution’); Orpheus looks like he’s been plucked from Montmartre - his groomed goatee, whining violin, cravat, and attitude are all exquisite - so is the roll of his eyes; and there’s plenty of ooh-la-la in Eurydice’s coquettishly wiggling shoulders and devilishly expressive eyes.

The original butt of Offenbach’s satire may be long forgotten, but the ironic inversion of antiquity’s most tragic romance into a tale of infidelity, and the irreverent domestication of Jupy (Jupiter's pet name), whose suit is stuffed with lovers’ panties (one of which ended up hanging from the conductor’s music stand) hasn’t ceased to amuse. Opera is of course Offenbach’s real whipping boy and as Orpheus' smug commentary on the key changes indicates - he's the embodiment of the tradition under attack. There is as little love lost between Offenbach and the musical establishment as between the philistinic Eurydice and the pretentious Orpheus. The irony is of course, that the sublime Julia Sitkovetsky (Eurydice) and Offenbach are more musically masterful than the man they mock. One moment he has Eurydice buzzing up and down the operatic scales in an attempt to seduce a fly (Jupiter in a most peculiar disguise), the next she is shaking the Sheldonian with a high-pitch outpouring of bathetic passion.

At times the orchestra ended up playing second fiddle - and not just to Orpheus (whose melodramatic mimes of playing the violin are accompanied by the first violin). The opportunities for comic sound-effects weren’t exploited often enough by instrumentalists content to remain in the background and support the singers. A notable exception was the use of their trombones’ slides to simulate turbulence in the delightfully anachronistic flight of Orpheus to Olympus wearing a Biggles-style flying helmet. But occasions like Pluto’s melodramatic revelation of his divine identity to Eurydice, called for a bit more pyrotechnics from the brass - the lights went down on cue, but the volume didn’t rise to the occasion. The whole orchestra did however muster gusto for the rumbustious can-can romp – the only time the pit really outshone the stage.

Even in such baggage-laden scenes as the can-can, New Chamber Opera offers a fresh take on tradition (though Jupiter’s attempts at contemporary dance in particular left much to be desired). The imaginativeness and irreverence of the whole performance was epitomised by the three heads of Cerberus in the curtain-call when they lifted their back legs like a dog about to piss. Offenbach would approve.

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Camilla Turner

at 10:47 on 3rd Feb 2012

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Brimming with exuberance, splendour and wit, The New Chamber Opera’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld showcases Oxford’s musical talent at its most magnificent. The two-act opera, staged in the glorious Sheldonian Theatre, is based on the Greek mythology of Orpheus’ descent to hell to retrieve the soul of his dead wife Eurydice. The opening scene takes place in the countryside near Thebes with Calliope introducing herself as the guardian of public virtue. We soon meet Orpheus and Eurydice, husband and wife who clearly detest one another. Upon being bitten by a poisonous snake Eurydice discovers that her lover, Aristaeus, is in fact Pluto, god of the underworld. From this point on we leave the mortal world, as the plot continues to unfold in heaven. Following a rebellion against Jupiter and his sickening ambrosia drink, action then moves to Hades, where Pluto is holding Eurydice captive. The arrival of Calliope and Orpheus at the underworld will lead to the opera’s denouement.

The undoubtable high points of the performance are the ensembles: the immortals of heaven mocking Jupiter’s amorous exploits, calling him “philandering Papa”, and the “Infernal Gallop” (better known as the Can-Can) which takes place at Pluto’s party in Hades. The farcical element of this scene, whereby Jupiter attempts countermand the set dance pattern of the Can-Can in order to get closer to Eurydice, makes it all the more entertaining to watch. Some fantastic comedic moments punctuate the performance, such as Eurydice’s seduction by Jupiter who is disguised as a fly, and the performance of Cerberus, the three headed dog who resides in hell.

While it was sometimes hard to make out all the words, this at no point obscured the meaning of the songs, and may have owed more to the acoustics of the Sheldonian than to the enunciation of the actors. There were a few scenes that appeared not to add much to the plot, such as the school girl’s goodbye to Orpheus before his ascent to heaven, and the bumbling dance of Jupiter at the party in Hades. If anything, there could have been more all-cast dancing scenes, though this may be more of a testament to how well dances such as the Can-Can were choreographed, that the audience were left with a thirst for more.

Particularly notable performances were Eurydice (Julia Sitkovetsky) whose unfaltering voice was able to reach the highest of falsettos while still upholding her sexy, sassy and seductive persona. The tremendous stage presence of Jupiter (James Geidt) made for flamboyant and amusing scenes, and Calliope (Anna Sideris) played out her role to perfection. The incredible professionalism of the opera was embodied by the unfaltering orchestral performance, with Natalya Zemanov as lead violinist.

A truly outstanding production and a fantastic evening’s entertainment, Orpheus and the Underworld could be performed on any West End stage.

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