Orpheus in the Underworld
Orphée aux enfers, whose title translates from the French as Orpheus in the Underworld, is an opéra bouffon (a form of operetta), or opéra féerie in its revised version. Its score was composed by Jacques Offenbach to a French text written by Ludovic Halévy and later revised by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux.
The work, first performed in 1858, is said to be the first classical full-length operetta. Offenbach's earlier operettas were small-scale one-act works, since the law in France did not allow full-length works of certain genres. Orpheus was not only longer, but more musically adventurous than Offenbach's earlier pieces.
This also marked the first time that Offenbach used Greek mythology as a background for one of his pieces. The operetta is an irreverent parody and scathing satire on Gluck and his Orfeo ed Euridice and culminates in the risqué Galop infernal ("Infernal Galop") that shocked some in the audience at the premiere. Other targets of satire, as would become typical in Offenbach's burlesques, are the stilted performances of classical drama at the Comédie-Française and the scandals in society and politics of the Second French Empire.
The "Infernal Galop" from Act 2, Scene 2, is famous outside classical circles as the music for the "can-can" (to the extent that the tune is widely, but erroneously, called "can-can"). Saint-Saëns borrowed the Galop, slowed it to a crawl, and arranged it for the strings to represent the tortoise in The Carnival of the Animals.
The first performance of the two-act, opéra bouffe version took place at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris on 21 October 1858 and ran for an initial 228 performances. It then returned to the stage a few weeks later, after the cast had been given a rest. For the Vienna production of 1860, Carl Binder provided an overture that became famous, beginning with its bristling fanfare, followed by a tender love song, a dramatic passage, a complex waltz, and, finally, the renowned can-can music.
In America the work played in German at the Stadt Theatre, on Broadway, from March 1861. It had its Czech premiere in 1864, under Adolf Čech. It had a run of 76 performances at Her Majesty's Theatre, in London, beginning on 26 December 1865, in an adaptation by J. R. Planché.
Sadler's Wells opera presented an English version by Geoffrey Dunn beginning on 16 May 1960. In the 1980s, English National Opera staged the opera freely translated into English by Snoo Wilson with David Pountney. The production was notable for its satirical portrayal of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the character Public Opinion. The first performance was at the Coliseum Theatre in London on 5 September 1985. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performed the work in the 1990s. In September 1997 a production by Laurent Pelly was mounted in a former hydroelectric plant near Geneva while the stage area of the Grand Théâtre was being renovated, with Yann Beuron and Annick Massis in the title roles and Marc Minkowski conducting; this production moved on to Lyon where it was recorded and filmed.
The Toronto Operetta Theatre staged a controversial performance in December 1993 to January 1994 in which heaven was Club Med, and hell was a leather bar.
In the eyes of Clément and Larousse the piece is une parodie grotesque et grossière (a coarse and grotesque parody), full of vulgar and indecent scenes that give off une odeur malsaine (an unhealthy odor). In the opinion of Piat, however, Offenbach's Orphée is, like most of his major operettas, a bijou (jewel) that only snobs will fail to appreciate. The piece was not immediately a hit, but critics' condemnation of it, particularly that of Jules Janin, who called it a "profanation of holy and glorious antiquity," only provided vital publicity, serving to heighten the public's curiosity to see the piece.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast
(two-act version), 21 October 1858
(Conductor: Jacques Offenbach)
|Premiere cast |
(four-act version), 7 February 1874
(Conductor: Jacques Offenbach)
|Cupidon (Cupid), god of love||soprano (en travesti)||Coralie Guffroy||Matz-Ferrare|
|Diane (Diana), goddess of chastity||soprano||Chabert||Berthe Perret|
|Eurydice, wife of Orphée||soprano||Lise Tautin||Marie Cico|
|John Styx, servant of Pluton, formerly king of Boeotia||baritone or tenor||Debruille-Bache||Alexandre|
|Junon (Juno), wife of Jupiter||mezzo-soprano||Marguerite Chabert||Pauline Lyon|
|Jupiter, king of the gods||baritone||Désiré||Christian|
|L'Opinion Publique (Public Opinion)||mezzo-soprano||Marguerite Macé-Montrouge||Elvire Gilbert|
|Mars, god of war||bass||Floquet|
|Mercure (Mercury), messenger of the gods||tenor||Jean-François Berthelier||Pierre Grivot|
|Minerve (Minerva), goddess of wisdom||soprano||Marie Cico|
|Morphée (Morpheus), god of sleep||tenor||Marchand|
|Orphée (Orpheus), a musician||tenor||Tayau||Meyronnet|
|Pluton (Pluto), god of the underworld, disguised as Aristée (Aristaeus), a farmer||tenor||Léonce||Montaubry|
|Vénus (Venus), goddess of beauty||contralto||Marie Garnier||Angèle|
|Bacchus, god of wine||spoken||Antognini|
|Cerbère (Cerberus), three-headed guardian of the underworld||barked||Tautin snr.|
|Éaque (Aeacus)||tenor||–||Jean Paul|
|Gods, goddesses, shepherds, shepherdesses, lictors and spirits in the underworld|
Synopsis (original two-act opéra bouffe version)Edit
Scene 1: Near Thebes
A melodrama (Introduction and Melodrame) opens the work. Public Opinion explains who she is – the guardian of morality ("Qui suis-je? du Théâtre Antique"). She seeks to rework the story of Orphée (Orpheus) and Eurydice – who, despite being husband and wife, hate each other – into a moral tale for the ages. However, she has her work cut out for her: Eurydice is in love with the shepherd, Aristée (Aristaeus), who lives next door ("La femme dont le coeur rêve"), and Orphée is in love with Chloë, a shepherdess. When Orphée mistakes Eurydice for her, everything comes out, and Eurydice insists they break the marriage off. However Orphée, fearing Public Opinion's reaction, torments her into keeping the scandal quiet using violin music, which she hates.
We now meet Aristée – who is, in fact, Pluton (Pluto) – keeping up his disguise by singing a pastoral song about those awful sheep ("Moi, je suis Aristée"). Since Pluton was originally played by a famous female impersonator, this song contains numerous falsetto notes. Eurydice, however, has discovered what she thinks is a plot by Orphée to kill Aristée, but is in fact a conspiracy between him and Pluton to kill her, so Pluton may have her. Pluton tricks her into walking into the trap by showing immunity to it, and, as she dies, transforms into his true form (Transformation Scene). Eurydice finds that death is not so bad when the God of Death is in love with you ("La mort m'apparaît souriante"), and so keeps coming back for one more verse. They descend into the Underworld as soon as Eurydice has left a note telling her husband she has been unavoidably detained (Descent to the Underworld).
All seems to be going well for Orphée until Public Opinion catches up with him, and threatens to ruin his violin teaching career unless he goes to rescue his wife. Orphée reluctantly agrees.
Scene 2: Olympus
The scene changes to Olympus, where the Gods sleep out of boredom ("Dormons, dormons"). Things look a bit more interesting for them when Diane (Diana) returns and begins gossiping about Actaeon, her current love ("Quand Diane descend dans la plaine"). However, Jupiter, shocked at the behaviour of the supposedly virgin goddess, has turned Actaeon into a stag. Pluto then arrives, and reveals to the other gods the pleasures of Hell, leading them to revolt against horrid ambrosia, hideous nectar, and the sheer boredom of Olympus ("Aux armes, dieux et demi-dieux!"). Jupiter's demands to know what is going on lead them to point out his hypocrisy at great length, describing – and poking fun at – all his mythological affairs. However, little further progress can be made before news of Orphée's arrival forces the gods to get onto their best behaviour. Pluto is worried he will be forced to give Eurydice back, and, after a quotation from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice sends the gods to tears, Jupiter announces that he is going to Hell to sort everything out. The other gods beg to come with him, he consents, and mass celebration breaks out at this holiday ("Gloire! gloire à Jupiter").
Eurydice is being kept locked up by Pluto, and is finding life very dull. Her gaoler, a dull-witted tippler by the name of John Styx, is not helping, particularly his habit of telling, at the slightest provocation, all about how he was King of Boeotia (a region of Greece that Aristophanes used as a source of rural rubes) until he died. But if he had not died, he would still be king ("Quand j'étais roi de Béotie").
Jupiter spots where Pluton hid Eurydice whilst being shown around by him, and slips through the keyhole by turning into a beautiful, golden fly. He meets Eurydice on the other side, and sings a love duet with her where his part consists entirely of buzzing ("Bel insecte à l'aile dorée"). Afterwards, he reveals himself to her, and promises to help her, largely because he wants her for himself.
The scene shifts to a huge party the gods are having in Hell, where ambrosia, nectar, and propriety are nowhere to be seen ("Vive le vin! Vive Pluton!"). Eurydice sneaks in disguised as a bacchante ("J'ai vu le dieu Bacchus"), but Jupiter's plan to sneak her out is interrupted by calls for a dance. Unfortunately, Jupiter can only dance minuets which everyone else finds boring and awful ("La la la. Le menuet n'est vraiment si charmant"). Things liven up, though, as the most famous number in the operetta, the Galop Infernal (best known as the music of the can-can) starts, and everyone throws himself into it with wild abandon ("Ce bal est original").
Ominous violin music heralds the approach of Orphée (Entrance of Orphée and Public Opinion), but Jupiter has a plan, and promises to keep Eurydice away from him. As with the standard myth, Orphée must not look back, or he will lose Eurydice forever ("Ne regarde pas en arrière!"). Public Opinion keeps a close eye on him, to keep him from cheating, but Jupiter throws a lightning bolt, making him jump and look back, and so all ends happily, with a reprise of the Galop.
The operetta has been recorded many times.
- 1952: A historic recording by René Leibowitz and the Paris Philharmonic re-issued on compact disc (REGIS RRC 2063), with Jean Mollien in the title role, Claudine Collart as Eurydice, Bernard Demigny as Jupiter and André Dran as Aristée/Pluton.
- 1978: Michel Plasson conducting the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, with Michel Sénéchal in the title role, Mady Mesplé as Euridice, Charles Burles, Michel Trempont, André Mallabrera, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Jane Berbié, Jane Rhodes (EMI CDS7496472).
- 1987: The English National Opera production, released on That's Entertainment Records (CD TER 1134) with Stuart Kale in the title role, Lilian Watson as Euridice, Richard Angas as Jupiter and Emile Belcourt as Aristée/Pluton.
- 1999: Marc Minkowski conducted the operetta (two-act version with some extras from the 4-act one) in Lyon, with a cast including Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Véronique Gens, Patricia Petibon, Ewa Podleś, and Steven Cole (EMI 0724355672520).
In 1983 BBC television broadcast a production with Denis Quilley as Jupiter/Napoleon III and Honor Blackman as Juno/Empress Eugénie, with Lillian Watson, Alexander Oliver, Isobel Buchanan, Felicity Palmer, Pauline Tinsley, Christopher Gable, conducted by Alexander Faris.
1997: The Lyon production is also issued on DVD with Minkowski conducting, Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Yann Beuron and others in a production by Laurent Pelly (TDK DV-OPOAE). This is basically the two-act version.
- Holden, p. 267
- Lamb, Andrew, "Orphée aux enfers", in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1992) ISBN 0-333-73432-7
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- Sleeve notes to the CD recording of the ENO production: CDTER 1134
- Milnes, Rodney. "All down to a hell of a good snigger" The Times, 22 Monday, March 1993; and Sutcliffe, Tom. "Styx for Kicks", The Guardian 21 April 1993, p. A6
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- "Past Shows : Toronto Operetta Theatre". www.torontooperetta.com. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
- Félix Clément and Pierre Larousse: Dictionnaire des opéras (rev. Arthur Pougin), Da Capo Press Music Reprint Series, New York 1969
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- Crémieux, Hector. Orphée aux Enfers, opéra bouffon en deux actes et quatre tableaux, Calmann-Levy, Paris, 1858, p8. 
- J. Offenbach. Orphée aux enfers, opéra féerie en 4 actes. Heugel, Paris, 1974, p2. 
- Orpheus in the Underworld, 1983 BFI database, accessed 10 April 2013.
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- Amadeus Almanac (1874), accessed 20 November 2008
- Holden, Amanda (ed). The Penguin Opera Guide, London, Penguin Books, 1997, ISBN 0-14-051385-X
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- The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.
- "Orpheus In the Underworld" The Guide to Light Opera and Operetta
- "Orpheus in the Underworld " The Guide to Musical Theatre
- "Orphée aux enfers, operetta" Answers.com