Emma Rice has a history of problematic relationships with the texts she chooses to direct for the stage, famously declaring that Shakespeare left her feeling ‘very sleepy’ and yearning for the Archers. With Orpheus in the Underworld for the English National Opera, she seems to have found herself again in conflict, this time with the libretto. In an interview for the Guardian, Rice revealed that when she looked at the text, she was horrified by what she found and swiftly concluded that it was not fit for purpose. So, she went about reconstructing it, along with lyricist Tom Morris, into, as she puts it, a ‘narrative I could believe in’.
Most of Offenbach’s operas are not things we can entirely believe in. Surrealism, that is deep surrealism of plot and language, are its signature traits. His Orpheus is not the traditional daring do hero who travels to Tartarus to bring back the woman he loves, but a cowardly violin teacher who is coaxed into observing proprieties by the force of Public Opinion. Socially liberal and sexually permissive, Offenbach’s 1858 opera has a deeply recalcitrant and chaotic streak. But in 2019 this is an opera that is unfit for purpose and Emma Rice gives it a more politically resonant re-write for #metoo hastaggers and social puritans.
In Rice’s reworked opera, Orpheus and Eurydice suffer a miscarriage and the resulting strain on their marriage leads to a separation that is briefly reconciled at the end. Jupiter is a sleazy king of the gods, who along with a devilish Pluto, both chase after Eurydice while the rest of the gods demand liberation from Jupiter’s tyrannical rule. Pluto kidnaps Eurydice and imprisons her in a grotty room, only for Jupiter to seduce her and sell her to Bacchus. Eventually she finds herself in the sex trade with money being stuffed into her brassiere. Imagine Manon Lescaut sung to music by Offenbach.
The ensemble cast is of varying quality. Mary Bevan was an excellent Eurydice and sang the role with all the sensuousness she could muster from the jarring English libretto. Ed Lyon was a timid Orpheus in an expanded role. Willard White brought a predictable weight to his role as Jupiter while the German mezzo-soprano Idunnu Münch produced the most exciting performance of the evening as Diana. Her voice sparkled with its steely penetration and admirably stylish smooth edge. Alex Otterburn impressed as the devilish Pluto in something of a pantomime character. Ellie Laugharne’s Cupid seemed to lose her way in ‘Eh hop! eh hop! place a Mercure’ but otherwise gave a bright performance. For the other gods, Anne-Marrie Owens was a gruff Juno, Judith Howarth was Venus and Keel Watson an AK-47 wielding Mars.
The singers were hampered by the lack of lyricism and musicality in the translation, but the orchestra produces a lucid interpretation of the score under the direction of Sian Edwards with well-judged transitions between Offenbach’s more ponderous passages and his frivolous ones. It is not enough to rescue what is otherwise a disapointing production of a wonderful opera.