Orpheus in the Underworld

Artist René Leibowitz
Title Orpheus in the Underworld
Release Date Friday, August 18, 2006
Genre Opera > Opera
Copyright © Preiser Records

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Orpheus in the Underworld owes its existence to the peculiar circumstances of its composer’s financial straits. Offenbach had for some three years been manager of a successful theatre in the heart of Paris’ amusement area, but somehow he was not able to deal with money so impractical that his intake never balanced his expenses. He used every conceivable ruse to evade bill collectors, until there was only one possibility still left – to write a tremendously successful work. When Orpheus was performed for the first time at the Bouffes Parisiens on October 21, 1858, it was neither a success nor a failure. Offenbach was in many ways the perfect embodiment of the mid-nineteenth century Parisian demimonde in all its gaiety, dizziness and decadence, but he was too intelligent for them to understand him. Orpheus is full of brilliantly witty satire of mythology, tradition and contemporary conditions and mores. All this escaped Offenbach’s audience. But when Jules Janin, famous critic of the newspaper Debats and the Frenchman’s version of what the British were shortly to feature as Victorians, got around to seeing Orpheus, the opera began to arouse attention. The composer was accused of blaspheming “sacred and glorious antiquity” – and, by extension, he was accused of militating against the government and social conditions. Nothing more was needed to provoke a tremendous controversy, in which fashion demanded that all should have some opinion. And so Orpheus, in a rather left – handed way, became a triumph. The libretto, by Hector Cremieux and Ludovic Halevy, is a parody of the lovely Greek myth of Orpheus, who plays on his lyre so beautifully that he moves the gods to restore to him his lost Eurydice. In the French libretto, Orpheus is a violinist and a teacher of music at the conservatory of Thebes. He and his wife Eurydice do not get along well together at all, and their rift is hastened when they accidentally discover that each has been unfaithful to the other. Pluto, disguised as a shepherd, has stolen Eurydice, and Orpheus is overjoyed at being rid of her. But public Opinion enters. Orpheus is after all in the limelight and must watch his actions. So he is forced, much to his disgust, to go to the underworld and reclaim his wife. On Olympus, meanwhile, Jupiter is having a hard time maintaining order in his divine family. The gods and goddesses will have no more of his tyranny and revolt against having to live on so unsubstantial a diet as ambrosia and nectar. When news arrive of Pluto’s theft of Eurydice, Jupiter immediately resolves to get Eurydice for himself. Eurydice is in the meantime being held incommunicado by John Styx, an idiot who in this world had been a prince of Beotia but has been made Eurydice’s jailer. Jupiter, posing as a fly, makes himself Eurydice’s second abductor, and has just turned her into a bacchante – when Orpheus, accompanied by Public Opinion, arrives on the scene. Orpheus is awarded Eurydice, much to both their regret. But her return is subject to one condition – Orpheus must lead the way, with Eurydice following behind, and he may not turn around to look. Orpheus would like nothing better than to break the injunction, look, and be rid of Eurydice. But Public Opinion will not let him. Jupiter, however, has not the slightest intention of letting his beautiful bacchante slip away. He hurls a thunderbolt, which startles Orpheus into turning his head sideways. Eurydice is lost to him, Orpheus is delighted, everyone breaks out into a joyous can-can, and the curtain falls- The parody is not only on the classical theme. Offenbach frequently spoofed contemporary operas, which must have amused his audiences but is hardly recognizable a century later. The slightly disguised Marseillaise will be found in the strains of the gods’ revolt chorus. And Orpheus’ appeal to Jupiter, consisting of a strong echo of Gluck’s Che faro senza Eurydice, is happily able to melt Jupiter in four bars. The score has often been condemned as facile and superficial. But although Offenbach never hesitated to break a rule when he thought to have an advantage from it, although he walked out on the training offered by Cherubini’s Academy and chose his teachers and his models to suit his own taste, he had a native talent for doing the right thing. He is funny without being vulgar, free without being unrestrained – and perhaps Orpheus is the finest example of opera bouffe that is artful and popular