Orpheus in the Underworld, Iford Arts, review: ‘thoroughly jolly’
The Opera della Luna company’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is executed with tremendous verve, says Rupert Christiansen.
I’ve never had a eureka! moment with Jacques Offenbach’s operettas. My loss I’m sure, but I can’t help feeling that once you’ve skimmed away the sweet musical froth, there’s nothing much left – not even the dregs of Victorian prejudice and inhibition that make his imitators Gilbert and Sullivan so fascinating.
Yet abetted by the seductively beautiful environment of Iford’s cloister and garden near Bath, the Opera della Luna company has almost broken my block – I certainly can’t think of any performance of Orpheus in the Underworld that I’ve ever enjoyed as much as this rumbustious, unpretentious and thoroughly jolly version, executed with tremendous verve and a welcome absence of gratuitous vulgarity.
Director Jeff Clarke is an old hand – he’s been running Opera della Luna for two decades now, dedicating it to the operetta repertory, and he knows precisely how to pace the action and keep the bubble factor sparkling.
He’s also a rather brilliant translator, delivering here a crisp and fluent text that has its fair share of awful old jokes and terrible rhymes, as well as a dash of contemporary satire – John Styx’s ditty, for instance, becomes a lament for Greece’s travails over the euro. One small reservation: although some idiosyncratic decisions made in regards to the edition may trouble only the experts, I did regret the translation of the lilting air “Au mont Ida” into a violin solo.
The staging takes place in fantasy panto land, and the designer Nigel Howard comes up with some marvellously dotty costumes for the quartet of dancers who impersonate everything from a flock of sheep to infernal devils before kicking merry mayhem into the final can-can galop.
Trapped between lubricious Pluto (Carl Sanderson), pompous Jupiter (Ian Belsey) and ineffectual Orpheus (Tristan Stocks), Suzanne Shakespeare makes a deliciously empty-headed Eurydice with a nice line in insouciant coloratura. Among several amusing cameos, I particularly enjoyed Katharine Taylor-Jones’s Public Opinion, libellously presented in the guise of a pontificating assessor from the Arts Council with boxes to tick and forms to fill.
It’s all good clean fun, underpinned by the vivacious playing of a sprightly band ably conducted by Toby Purser. I may not ever be totally persuaded by Offenbach’s genius, but what a pleasure it was to be part of such a happy audience genuinely enjoying themselves rather than stoically enduring an improving night at the opera.