Orpheus in the Underworld
By Jacques Offenbach

Reviewed in Bulletin, 11 Febraury 2003, p. 76

Jacques Offenbach 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 version pussyfoots.

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 smack.

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 be bettered.

The surtitles 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 inventiveness.

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.

French operetta 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.

Mark Thompson’s 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 entire proceedings.

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 Tosca.

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.