ENO’s unconventional take on Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’

ENO ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ © Clive Barda

In complete contrast to Gluck’s season opener, English National Opera’s current production in the Orpheus quartet is Offenbach’s satirical operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld, with tenor Ed Lyon and soprano Mary Bevan in the title roles, and Sir Willard White as Jupiter. Director Emma Rice makes her ENO debut, and the production is led by former ENO Music Director Sian Edwards.

Set to a libretto by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy, this riotous take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth was the first full-length classical operetta, and premiered on October 21, 1858, at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris. It was greeted with shock by the critics, partly because they felt that it was mocking of Gluck’s revered interpretation, and partly because it destroyed the hallowed perception of ancient Greece. It proved hugely popular with audiences, though, and became an international success.

ENO’s production of ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ © Clive Barda

Offenbach’s score is peppered with instantly recognizable music – the overture being the most well-known part, and very popular as a standalone piece. It includes what is probably the most famous piece, known as the Can-can, although Offenbach’s title for it was the Galop-infernal. Interestingly, the dance which is performed in the operetta is a completely different one from the rather raunchy and scandalous one which was first seen in Paris in the 1830s, and became so popular throughout the 19th century.

The operetta depicts Eurydice as an unfaithful wife who falls in love with Pluto, and having been fatally bitten by a snake, accompanies him to the hedonistic hell of the underworld. Orpheus reluctantly (and persuaded by Public Opinion), tries to rescue his errant wife, but as he leads her out of this bacchanalian revelry, Jupiter (who has also fallen in love with her), uses a thunderbolt to scare Orpheus into turning back, and Eurydice disappears back into the underworld.

ENO’s production of ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ – © Clive Barda

Ed Lyon has a repertoire which ranges from the baroque to contemporary music, and he has appeared on the stages of many of the world’s leading opera houses and concert halls. Among recent highlights are roles such as Colin in Denisov’s L’écume des jours for Stuttgart Opera, Hylas in Les Troyens, Steuerman in Der fliegende Holländer and Walther in Tannhäuser for The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni for Scottish Opera, and Freddy in My Fair Lady for the Châtelet in Paris.

Mary Bevan, in her role debut as Eurydice, is an internationally renowned artist in the baroque, classical and contemporary repertoire. A winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist award and UK Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent in music, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2019.  This season sees her performing Sifare in Mozart’s Mitridate for Garsington Opera, reprising the role of Rose Maurrant in Weill’s Street Scene for Opera de Monte-Carlo, and on tour with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as Diana in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride.

Willard White (Jupiter) and Mary Bevan (Eurydice) in ENO’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ ©Clive Barda

Sir Willard White sings Jupiter, father of the gods. One of the most popular opera stars of the past 40 years, and regarded as one of the most versatile, he has performed at some of the world’s finest opera houses and concert halls, and appeared with some of the most celebrated conductors, directors and orchestras. In addition to these performances at ENO, Sir Willard will also appear this season as Luther/Crespel in Les contes d’Hoffmann at La Monnaie, as Trinity Moses in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny for Dutch National Opera, and as Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande for LA Opera.

The cast also includes Lucia Lucas as Public Opinion, Anne-Marie Owens as Juno, Alan Oke as John Styx, Ellie Laugharne as Cupid, Keel Watson as Mars, Judith Howarth as Venus, and ENO Harewood Artists Alex Otterburn as Pluto and Idunnu Münch as Diana.

Ed Lyon (Orpheus) and Mary Bevan (Eurydice) in ENO’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ © Clive Barda

This new production for English National Opera was adapted from the original French by Emma Rice and Tom Morris, and is presented in association with Rice’s new company, Wise Children. Former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, and actor, director and Artistic Director for Kneehigh, Emma Rice has also directed the West End productions of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Oedipussy, The Empress for the RSC, and An Audience with Meow Meow for Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Sian Edwards – ENO Music Director during the 1990s – leads these performances, apart from those on November 1st, 26th and 28th when Valentina Peleggi takes the baton. Ms Edwards has been Head of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music since 2013.

Set designs are by Lizzie Clachan, costumes by Lez Brotherston, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, and choreography by Etta Murfitt.

English National Opera’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld runs at the Coliseum until November 28th. For more information and tickets, list the English National Opera website.

Information sourced from:
ENO program notes
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Ed Lyon
Mary Bevan
Sir Willard White
Emma Rice
Sian Edwards

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