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Jacques Offenbach: Orpheus in der Unterwelt
Donald Grobe (Orpheus), Julia Migenes Johnson (Eurydice), Mona Seefried (Public Opinion), George Shirley (Aristaeus/Pluto), Hans Beirer (Jupiter), Astrid Varnay (Juno), Janis Martin (Diana), Carol Malone (Cupid), Annabelle Bernard (Venus), Peter Maus (Mercury), William Pell (Morpheus), Helmuth Lohner (John Styx), Manfred Röhrl (Mars), Maria Teresa Reinoso (Hebe), Maria José Brill (Minerva), Ballett der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Ivan Sertic (choreographer), Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Walter Hagen-Groll (chorus master), Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Jesús López Cobos (conductor), Götz Friedrich (director), Andreas Reinhardt (stage and costume designer)
Recorded live in Berlin (Jan 1, 1984) – 188'
2 DVDs Arthaus Musik 101 679 – Sung in German; subtitles in English or German – Booklet in English, German and French

This performance of Orphée aux enfers - in German, thus Orpheus in der Unterwelt - from January 1st, 1984, brims with infectious delight and also offers a picture of the impressive talents assembled by the Deutsche Oper Berlin at that point in its history. That it is not performed in its original French is no drawback.

Offenbach arranged two versions of this work, a two-act version in 1858 and a four-act version in 1874. Director Götz Friedrich along with Thomas Woitkewitsch devised this three-act version using music from both versions for this production, unveiled in 1982. Beyond all this, the booklet notes state that every performance was a bit different as comment on topical events would be incorporated. A bit of Offenbachized Wagner is also inserted when Orpheus ascends to Olympus, portrayed as a resort hotel, a rainbow appears and we hear a version of the entry of the gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold.

“Frothy” is the usual description of the work and this term certainly applies to the plot. Orpheus is a violinist married to Eurydice, a woman who hates his music. She is carrying on with a neighbouring shepherd, Aristaeus, who turns out to be Pluto, the guardian of the underworld. She is bitten by a poisonous snake, so Pluto gets to take her down to his kingdom. Orpheus is delighted, but Public Opinion demands he approach the gods on Mount Olympus to demand the return of his wife. There we find the gods are bored with their celestial existence. Cupid leads them in mocking Jupiter for his many marital transgressions. They are delighted at the chance to enter Hades. There we find a discontented Eurydice waited upon by a tipsy servant, John Styx. Jupiter transforms himself into a tiny fly to get through the keyhole of her cell, and promises a pleasant life accompanied by a celestial minuet. Pluto counters with his own dance, the galop infernale, better known as the can-can. No contest there. In the end a happy Eurydice is a free woman unencumbered by a husband or gods. It all ends with a reprise of the irresistable can-can.

Right from the start a strong presence is established by Mona Seefried as Public Opinion. Seefried was borrowed from the world of jazz/musical theatre - she has a powerhouse voice and manages the transition from prim moralizer to seduced floozy. (Interestingly she has a distinguished classical music pedigree, her mother being soprano Irmgard Seefried and her father the violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan.)

Donald Grobe makes an engaging Orpheus. He is made up to look like Jacques Offenbach; he mimes playing the violin while the real violinist ascends from the pit also made up like Offenbach. Julia Migenes Johnson (this was just about the time she made the film Carmen) gives a lively performance as the flirtatious Eurydice, while George Shirley takes fiendish delight in his role as Pluto. Hans Beirer, then age 73 and a veteran performer of Wagnerian roles, is the very picture of faded dignity as Jupiter. Another noted Wagnerian is Astrid Varnay as his wife, Juno, whose enjoyment of the can-can is infectious. Janis Martin is a full-voiced Diana, and Annabelle Bernard a charming Venus. Carol Malone is a sassy, bright-voiced Cupid. I’m afraid longuers appear in the scene with John (or, in this case, Hans) Styx. Helmuth Lohner is an actor with a sad clown presence but he can’t really sing and the character’s tipsiness fails to be amusing (he doesn’t get much audience response either.)

The entire performance is very animated. Much use is made of a passerelle, a gangway that surrounds the orchestra pit. This brings a lot of action closer to the audience - the can-can for example, which is taken at a frantic pace. Mercury roller skates along it as well. In Cupid’s “Kissing Aria” many audience members get kissed by a god or goddess.

The one name above all that attracted me to this production was its conductor, Jesús López Cobos, and I wasn’t disappointed. He was Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1981 to 1990 and this performance gives ample proof as to why. He sets a cracking pace and keeps everything marvelously together. In his interview he defends his choice to personally conduct this “frivolous” work in that its music deserves as much care and attention as that of more serious works.

The DVD is taken from the television broadcast, complete with the announcer’s introductions and commentary. The 188-minute running time of the two DVDs includes a 27-minute segment featuring interviews with seven members of the cast plus the conductor and director, plus trailers for three other operas from the vaults of the DOB. Götz Friedrich brings up a point often mentioned in conjunction with the work, that it was seen as rather shocking when Offenbach (and let’s not forget his librettists, Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy) lampooned the ancient gods, and that this amounted to a comment on the rulers of the day (Napoleon III in 1858, the Third Republic in 1874). I would like to point out that the august gods were treated flippantly in opera as far back as 1640 in Cavalli’s Gli amore d’Apollo e di Dafne (reviewed on this website). It’s arguable just how much Offenbach’s work was intended to be subversive of the established order - especially when the established order was first an empire then a republic. This production makes pointed reference to contemporary situations (Bonn, the German capital, for example) and figures, such as Plácido Domingo. (A contemporary figure still!)

While the 30-year-old television production cannot match BluRay for sheer visual opulence, it comes across well. The ubiquitous Brian Large directed it for TV and did a terrific job capturing the multi-level, highly kinetic production.

Michael Johnson




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