Offenbach's 'Orpheus' is the victim of updating


KEENE, N.H. -- Jacques Offenbach's satirical operetta, "Orphee aux enfers" (Orpheus in the Underworld) was a smash hit in 1858 and revised as an expanded version in 1874. Always popular because much of its satire hits targets even today but mostly because of its lilting tunes, it has been put onto video quite often recently. In fact, I have four productions in my collection, all on the ArtHaus Musik label; and I want to comment on the latest entry.

Of the two German-language versions, I much prefer the 1971 made-for-television production, conducted by Marek Janowski. It runs at 101 minutes and uses material from both the original and revised scores. The 1984 directed by Jesus Lopez Cobos runs 161 minutes and is overloaded with a huge chorus and elaborate stage sets. However, Julia Migenes Johnson makes an interesting Eurydice.

Sung in French and lasting 123 minutes is the 1997 Lyon production, conducted by Marc Minkowski. I find the overly ebullient Natalie Dessay a liability. Satire overdone becomes farce and that is not what this work is all about.

Now we have the latest DVD release with another 1997 version conducted by Patrick Davin. Having seen it, I will go back to my 1971 television presentation. This latest release, as performed at La Monnaie/De Munt Brussels and running at 120 minutes (Amazon says 143 minutes), it shows the gods' dwelling atop Mount Olympus to be a fancy restaurant, with Cupid (Marie-Noelle de Callatay) as waiter and the male gods dressed in tuxedos and the goddesses in evening clothing from several decades past. Jupiter (Dale Duesing) is dressed like the other males and lacks any sense of Alpha Divinity, while his much bejeweled Juno (Jacqueline van Quaille) appears as an older woman, full of life, but not attractive any more to her spouse.

By the same token, Pluto (Reinaldo Macias), in his tuxedo, simply does not look like the Prince of the Inferno. But what amazed me is having the Buzzing Fly seduction scene done with Jupiter not having any fly costume at all. In short, there is not much to look at in this production.

Public Opinion (Desiree Meiser) shouts her vocal lines and dresses like Carol Burnett's charlady, and John Styx (Andre Jung) is played as a drunk and not very funny at all -- unless you think being falling down drunk is droll. Or the repeated use of "merde" added to the dialogue and lyrics. Neither the Orpheus of Alexandru Badea nor the Eurydice of Elizabeth Vidal is very striking, although Vidal does win the audience's approval with her high notes.

Not doing the Minuet as a minuet utterly ruins the joke, because the old-time dancing of Jupiter is not well contrasted with the famous "Infernal gallop," or Can-can as it came to be called when the Moulin Rouge dancers picked it up.

Here is a surefire comic masterpiece that fizzles out through "let's do it really differently" misdirection. Alas.

Music While You Work -- This is the fifth entry in the Guild Light Music series on CDs with the title "Light Music While You Work." It seems that the British government and BBC worked on a series of musical broadcasts to be played as morale boosters both at home and on the job, especially in the factories supplying the troops with what was needed in 1940 and for the next 27 years!

The recordings on the fifth disc are all from the 1940s and include many familiar pieces. Among them are "Barcarolle" (Offenbach), "Estudiantina" (Waldteufel), "Song without words" (Tchaikovsky), "Narcissus" (Nevin) [which I heard back in PS 64 when a youth], and "Melody in F" (Rubinstein). The rest of the 26 selections are equally delightful.

Among the orchestras heard are those of Harry Fryer, Richard Crean, Harold Collins, David Java and Ronnie Munro. How many British still remember them might be an interesting question!

This is number 211 in "The Golden Age of Light Music" series, and like all the others it provides nice relaxing ambient music or very interesting music for those looking for old-time pieces to play at concerts or at home.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.


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