Opera Australia serve up a comically modern
Orpheus in the Underworld in Sydney
In his director’s note, Jonathan Biggins writes, ‘All I can hope for is that you go out of the theatre feeling a bit more cheerful than when you came in’. If that was the opera’s aim, then few could claim that it was not successful in achieving it. The ABC’s Limelight magazine describes the production as ‘a razor sharp, satirical romp that’s camper than a row of tents and twice as funny’. In this re-working of a 2003 production, the opera is unashamedly brought into the present day, drawing on its original intentions of lampooning modern society over their shallow morals, and the fickleness of the upper classes.
From the outset we are lambasted by the character, Public Opinion, who acts as a commentator on the proceedings. In her first entry she criticises us the audience, for our high-mindedness and snobbery at attending a stereotypically upper-class form of entertainment. She then proceeds to mispronounce the name, Eurydice, instead pronouncing itEurydike. She rudely interrupts the orchestra and warns them against leading us astray along the road to depravity. She also appears at various other stages of proceedings to offer her opinion, for example when she expresses shame at how Orpheus is unmoved by the death of Eurydice.
This was a highly visual production. Although in Act One, the set is of a Classical Arcadian nature, it is somehow garish, aided in this respect by some rather comical props – a soft toy snake, and toy animals on wheels, which rather unsubtly are pushed onto the stage. The costumes too, while some were tasteful, were often lurid and would not have looked out of place on a sci-fi set. Pluto looked like someone out of Star Trek, while Orpheus rather unfortunately looked like a character off a children’s television show with a 1960’s hairstyle. Act Two opened outside the gates of Mount Olympus with dustbin men collecting recycling bins and the orange lights of a dustcart flashing. Maybe this served to make the gods appear less deified. One of the morals of the plot is that the gods are seemingly just as immoral as us mortals. Jupiter disguises himself as a fly in Act III in order to seduce Eurydice, the very woman he had gone to the underworld to rescue and reclaim for Orpheus. There were several topical one-liners throughout the opera which titillated the audience. In Act II, Mercury descends onto the set in a motorbike, but receives a parking ticket, at which point he retorts that he had only dropped in to sing one number. Australian references were also employed in this production – Styx tells us that he was once Mayor of Parraxmatta, a play on Parramatta, which is a suburb of Sydney. There were several lewd moments in the evening too, for example when the judges in the underworld disrobe their judicial attire to reveal their undergarments of thongs, harnesses and nipple clamps.
In terms of the singing, there were two standouts – Rachelle Durkin as Eurydice and Christopher Hillier as Jupiter were both outstanding and sang their parts with a rich, resonant tone and injected a lot of vocal colour into their respective roles. I did not understand however the mixture in this production of a standard ‘classical’ way of singing, which most of the characters employed compared with a ‘west-end show’ style of singing, which one or two of the characters used, most notably Pluto. Maybe the directors were trying to make him into something of a pantomime villain, however the juxtaposition of the two styles did not really work for me and the contrast was sometimes comical, most notably in Pluto’s final entry of the whole opera. All of the characters were lightly amplified too, which I thought was unnecessary.
The opera did indeed reach the director’s aims in making us more ‘cheerful’, but for me I thought it was a shame to alter Offenbach’s opera so much. By trying to bring the opera up to date and make it topical, I found that it became a cross between a poor man’s Gilbert and Sullivan and a west-end show. I believe that Offenbach’s original is strong enough to make moral observations which an intelligent audience can apply to modern society without the need to debase the original. The libretto, while often amusing, was often rather clumsy and did not seem to scan properly with the music. While the evening’s performance received a rapturous response and many people were clearly delighted by it, I left feeling that the opera had been somewhat debased. Having said that, it was one of the most entertaining evenings I have had in a long time!