OPERA - OTHER COMPOSERS - ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD
in the Underworld
By Jacques Offenbach
Reviewed in Bulletin,
11 Febraury 2003, p. 76
would have been the last person to be offended by being brought up to
day for an Australian audience. He laughed at the classics and ribbed
writers from 1850s Paris as representatives of a timeless hypocrisy. But
those references need a contemporary edge, and the team of Phil Scott,
Jonathan Biggins and director Ignatius Jones have half succeeded in
providing this element for Opera Australia’s Orpheus
in the Underworld. Offenbach today would be pungent where their
The rejigging of the
first act fails to get beyond stage business to the business of the
sttire. To mock the fiure of Public Opinion, Jones & co take aim at
thesafe and stale target of Pauline Hanson, not Janette Howeard or the
more stageable Alan (“the Parrot”) Jones. For a brief moment, the
sexually predatory Goddess Diana makes a bow towards Princess Di.
Offenbach would have pitched the violin-obsessed Orpheus as Richard
Tognettti, Marx would have been storming Baghdad and Morpheus selling
Many of the new lines
lack point, verbal or social. Most of the puns should be pruned. Other
passages, such as the cataloguing of Jupiter’s disguises, could hardly
displaying these topical jokes draw attention away from the Opera HOsue
pit, to which Offenbach’s genius made a late entry. Under French
conductor, Emmanuel Plasson, the music of Act One sounded as if it could
have been composed by any hack. The pace picked up during the patter
numbers and choruses of Act Two without catching the spring of the
score, relying instead on pom-pom-pom. Not until the opening of Act Four did the playing
sustain the effervescence that makes Offenbach a treasure-house of
delights. That the jokes of his musical cross-references are not lost on
us is no reason for surrendering the light touch and wit of his
This listlessness from
the band did nothing to spark the singers. Mercury’s’ Act Two patter
song from Andrew Brunsdon could have been a prose recitation until take
up by Jupier and Juno.
depends on its frisson, an
electric charge which establishes an ensemble of energy between everyone
on stage and the musicians. Instead, we got separate numbers and
set-pieces. Ignatius Jones has not translated his success at mounting
major events, such as segments of the Olympic ceremonies, into the
continuous flow of fun required for a well-crafted stagework.
designs are as cheeky as they are effective. His costumes, however, are
more predictable and occasionally get in the way of their bearers’
performances. The 30cm platforms immobilised Pluto during the final act
bacchanalia. The total look could fill a string of floats in a Gay and
Lesbian Mardi Gras, to quote the revised libretto.
Despite the title
role, Orpheus is only slightly more than the first among 14 equals.
Jamie Allen was cast as Kamp, which confused him vocally and left him
without an object of desire, students now being off limits.
Amerila Farrugia as
Eurydice made the most of the vocal opportunities to respond to sex,
shrill in resentment when deprived of satisfaction, and sweet when the
centre of attention, including her cunnilingus duet with John Pringle as
Jupiter. He seemed less sure than usual of himself theatrically, even
before being swung aloft as a fly.
David Hobson, who
represented Pluto as a caddish Hugh Grant, spoke well, and took flight
after a wickedly falsetto passage to stay firm throughout his Olympus
aria. Jonathan Biggins as John Styx had several truly funny lines,
delivered with a stylishness which should have set the tone for the
Jennifer Bermingham as
Juno produced her bass notes and base books for the put-upon wife. Sally
McHugh filled the lascivious Venus as a bitting rival for Liza
Harper-Brown’s Diana, while Natalie Joes proved a sprightly Cupid.
Joan Carden’s characterisation as “Public Opinion” exposed vocal
and comic talents quite opposed to those in her recent renditions of
The adult and
children’s choruses joined in the fun, once it got started. The
gods’ gallop was hardly more than the hokey-pokey. Jones resorted to a
stunning jocks-in-frocks reprise of the can-can to milk applause after
the final curtain. Its brilliance underlined what had been missing.