> OFFENBACH Orpheus in the Underworld [PQ]: Classical DVD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Orphée aux enfers

Alexandru Badea (ten) Orpheus; Elisabeth Vidal (sop) Eurydice; Reinaldo Macias (ten) Aristeus-Pluto; Dale Duesing (bar) Jupiter; Jacqueline van Quaille mez Juno; Désirée Meiser mez Public Opinion; André Jung (ten) John Styx; Michele Patzakis (sop) Venus; Marie-Noëlle de Callatay (sop) Cupid; Sonia Theodoridou (sop) Diane; Franck Cassard (ten) Mercury; Laurence Misonne (sngr) Minerva;
Chorus and Orchestra of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels/Patrick Davin
Stage director: Herbert Wernicke
Video director: Dirk Gryspeirt
Recorded in 1997
Picture format 16:9, Sound 2.0, Region 2 and 5
ARTHAUS MUSIK F L 100 402 [143 minutes]


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Satire is a funny game. Offenbach’s parody of Napoleonic society and its social injustices uses figures from Classical mythology to render the comedy and comment at one remove, a trick pioneered by Aristophanes and used frequently during the intervening space of (approximately) 2368 years. Orphée’s success led Napoleon himself to order a Command Performance of the piece 18 months later, which is rather like The Queen inviting the Sex Pistols to a Royal Variety Show.

The tableau gradually revealed during the Overture leads the viewer to suppose that a recognisable reflection of that satiric intent is about to unfold: Classical scenes of disporting deities are revealed, but there’s something wrong: the paintings are third-rate, and they are peeling off the walls. This is a nice idea which puts the viewer in house and distracts from the scrappy playing and sluggish conducting in the pit, where the camera is usually trained during these opera-on-film productions.

The Bizarreries only start when Public Opinion is revealed not on stage but haranguing her way through the stalls, a French Nora Batty in appearance and vocal quality. If it’s put on, it still sounds dreadful. The production’s one estimable advantage soon appears, an Orpheus who can actually play the fiddle as opposed to the lame mugging often seen on stage. In fact Badea’s skills on the violin are superior to those of his voice, which proves dry and rather inflexible. Mind you, one can only sympathise when Eurydice, driven to despair by her husband’s violinistic soliloquies, exclaims ‘Ah, how dreary and irritating!’ The fault here lies less with Orpheus or Badea than with Offenbach, in one of the several musically thin moments (sometimes five-minute spans) in the piece.

But there’s also fizz and fun in Offenbach’s score, so long as the conductor and director are willing to share the joke. They aren’t here. Tempos stay flat, and when they speed up from time to time, cracks show in the ensemble large enough to demonstrate why they slow down again. Act 2 is set on Mount Olympus but in Herbert Wernicke’s vision, the gods loll about in the ‘Mort Subite’ café, wherein the action of the whole opera takes place. Perhaps the geographical transference pokes fun at the dinner-jacketed and degenerate upper classes (even those who go to the opera, bit of cutting social criticism there) of our age and of Offenbach’s. I thought, perhaps naively, that one of the first rules of drama was that the characters have to appear interested in what they are doing for the audience to share the feeling. Everyone looks so catatonically bored that it required an effort of will not to put them out of their misery and press the ‘Eject’ button. Maybe the entry of Mercury, winged messenger of the gods, through the café roof was meant to reduce me to helpless laughter, or maybe it was his continual failure to sing on the beat. Constant stage business renders absurd the few moments of lyric tenderness; while Eurydice sings her farewell to earth, Pluto slathers on panstick to make himself up as a comedy devil. Orpheus’s brief song of triumph is subverted by Public Opinion stumbling along the front row of the stalls and treading on the toes of a few Brussels opera-goers en route. It’s not funny, and it has precious little to do with Offenbach. In such circumstances it’s no wonder there are no very distinguished vocal contributions, though Elisabeth Vidal’s Eurydice is brightly sung. The opera’s famous closing Can-Can bowls along, as it should, with a slight sense of hysteria that suggests either another po-mo piece of subversion or relief on the performers’ part that they have got this far.

May I suggest that the senses of humour possessed by the French and the Germans are not entirely complementary? My apologies to those who regard such comment as a slur on either nation, but I posit it as one possible reason among many to account for this turgid travesty of a night at the Brussels Opera.

Peter Quantrill


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