FAIRFAX, Va., Oct. 7, 2015 – Northern Virginia audiences were treated to the Virginia Opera’s season opener this weekend past, as the company presented its hijinks-filled production of Jacques Offenbach’s still popular light opera, “Orpheus in the Underworld” at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. The production is heading for its final outing at the Carpenter Theatre in Richmond, Va., this weekend.
Offenbach’s 1858 comic classic is mid-19th century light opera at its best, with a plot line built around an ancient Greek myth, but so thoroughly updated that it still resonates today.
Most fans of ancient myth are familiar with the story of Orpheus, the famed lyrist, and his beautiful wife, Eurydice, who dies tragically not long after they are married. Orpheus gets a rare opportunity to descend into Hades to retrieve Eurydice, provided, however, that he not look back at her as they depart the underworld realm of the god Pluto. Apparently unaware of the fate of Lot’s wife in a roughly parallel Biblical story, Orpheus does indeed look back and loses his wife for good.
Offenbach and his lyricists, Ludovic Halévy and (later) Hector-Jonathan Crémieux, turned the tale on its head, re-imagining this ill-fated pair as quarrelling contemporary spouses who could scarcely stand one another and were about to discuss divorce when Eurydice conveniently dies.
But the times being what they were and with the famous musician Orpheus about to be engulfed in a potential marital scandal, his public relations guru—literally “Public Opinion” in the opera—encourages him to be a real Romantic and head down to Hades in an attempt to rescue his wife. Indeed, this could be a big public relations coup for Orpheus. In today’s Hollywood, in particular, positively seething with PR hacks, the humor here seems déjà vu all over again.
Unfortunately, Jupiter and a bevy of other gods get involved in the machinations, with both Jupiter and Pluto eager to experience the charms of Eurydice. The nonsense continues as Jupiter and all the gods of Olympus descend to Hell for a massive costume party—not to mention that famous “can-can”—as Orpheus and Public Opinion arrive.
It’s all great fun, devoid of morals or logic but redeemed by great, popularly styled music and witty speeches and asides. Better yet, the Virginia Opera’s version is in contemporary English, tuned to current sensibilities, refreshing the jokes in the original, which were always meant to be topical and as naughty as the censors would allow. Offenbach’s success with this type of opera ultimately paved the way for Gilbert & Sullivan to launch their own popular takes on the genre.
The Virginia Opera’s production gets off to a bit of a slow start, hampered in some ways by the large, under-populated banquet table that serves to keep our quarreling pair apart, slowing down the delivery of their spoken dialogue.
But once the music really gets going, the action and the tunes fly nonstop, creating a production that’s not grand opera for sure, but very fun opera indeed.
This production boasts a larger-than-usual cast of decent though not always spectacular young singers. That said, this creates little problem for this opera which rises and falls largely on exaggerated characterizations and somewhat slapstick humor—skill sets that were executed with big-hearted gusto by everyone involved.
Notable vocals were turned in by soprano Meredith Lustig (Eurydice), Virginia Opera regular, mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak (Public Opinion), and exuberant baritone Troy Cook (Jupiter). Tenor Javier Abreu, whom we’ve admired in other productions, gave his role as Orpheus his best as well, although Offenbach doesn’t give him very much to do here.
A special CDN hat tip goes to tenor Kyle Tomlin. His frantic, over-the-top Mercury entered at just the right time to give the production a real energy boost, as he interpreted his brief but key role to perfection.
The chorus performed with great energy and gusto, and conductor Anne Manson helped both orchestra and vocalists sound perfectly synchronized amidst all the opera’s chaos.
Aside from an extraordinarily striking pop art backdrop, the Virginia Opera’s stage setting was only so-so. But its costuming, particularly that of Mercury as well as Jupiter’s hilarious metamorphosis into what looked like a cross between Ant-Man and a super-powered green bottle fly, were the visual highlights of an already colorful show.
Was a good time had by all? Absolutely. Richmond opera fans will be discovering that for themselves this weekend in this sprightly production, which we’d also highly recommend for opera newbies.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of 4)
Virginia Opera’s new production of “Orpheus in the Underworld” continues for its final week in Richmond this weekend. Here are the particulars:
Location: The wonderfully weird, elaborately decorated and restored 80-year old Carpenter Theatre downtown at Richmond’s CenterStage, 600 E. Grace Street, Richmond, VA 23219.
Performance times: Friday, October 9, 2015 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: Tickets available online via Etix, or by calling Etix at 1-800-514-3849. Tickets may also be available in person at the box office of the Carpenter Theatre. For further information, including group sales, call Virginia Opera’s box office at 1-866-673-7232.
Pre-opera talk: Join Dr. Glenn Winters for his “Opera Up Close” pre-curtain talk 45 minutes before each performance for his informative and entertaining insights on each production.
Next up in November: Virginia Opera performs Puccini’s beloved “La Bohème” in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax City, Va.