I got quite a surprise when I opened the latest packet of goodies from La Cieca – a DVD of Orphée aux Enfers, but in German as Orpheus in der Unterwelt, from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1984, with a bizarre cast list including two noted exponents of Wagner’s Brünnhilde (Astrid Varnay and Janis Martin) in supporting roles, a Wagnerian heldentenor (Hans Beirer) as Jupiter, a tenor who I thought of as a Mozart singer from the 60’s and 70’s (George Shirley) as Pluton, and the “crossover” artist Julia Migenes, who started out in musicals but appeared in quite a few operas  including the famous Francesco Rosi cinema version of Carmen, as Eurydice. The production is by Götz Friedrich , who did a lot of Wagner productions at Covent Garden that I remember very well.  

There is a certain cheekiness in the whole piece, including its very name, that is lost in translation. “Orpheus in the Underworld” does not really capture the nuance of the French title, which could also be translated “Orpheus Goes to Hell” or even “To Hell with Orpheus!”

Jacques Offenbach had composed numerous one-act operettas, which were all his company at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens was permitted to present under Parisian licensing regulations, prior to Orphée aux Enfers, but when these restrictions were lifted in 1858, he collaborated with the marvellous playwright and comic author Ludovic Halévy to produce his first full-length ” opéra bouffon”  with a full orchestra, large cast and chorus and a sumptuous production with scenery by the artist Gustave Doré. The two-act version was expanded, years later, into four acts with revisions to the libretto by  Hector-Jonathan Crémieux.

The piece was having a moderately successful run at Offenbach’s small theatre, when it was attacked by the prestigious critic Jules Janin in the Journal des Débats. Since “Orphée aux Enfers” pokes fun at both operas by Gluck and the sort of exalted neo-classical dramas then presented by the Comédie-Française, Janin expressed outrage at the “profanation of holy and glorious antiquity” in the work’s spoof of mythology.

Part of his indignation, however, which he could not explicitly allude to in print, was that the depiction of Jupiter, King of Heaven, as a notorious philanderer and the unhappiness thereby caused to his long-suffering wife Juno, was seen as a skit on the womanising Emperor of the French, Napoleon III , and his consort the Empress Eugénie. The scandal caused by Janin’s review, combined with the naughty fun of the “Infernal galop”which soon became famous as the “Can-Can” at the culmination of the piece, turned the show into a big hit.

In this version of the Orpheus myth, he and his wife Eurydice are bored with each other and both pursuing extra-marital affairs, she with the charming shepherd next door who turns out to be Pluto, god of the underworld, in disguise. Pluto suggests that she allow herself to get bitten by a poisonous snake and die so she can join him in his realm, which she is happy to do, and Orpheus is glad to be rid of her. However the character “Public Opinion”, a strait-laced woman who enforces morality, compels Orpheus to appeal to the gods of Olympus to get his wife back. Jupiter decides to take a trip to hell to investigate and the other deities, very bored with lounging around in heaven living off ambrosia, join him on this holiday.

Jupiter is very taken with Euridice and turns himself into a fly in order to try to have his way with her, but he is unsuccessful. Orpheus is granted permission to escort Eurydice out of the underworld, but only on condition he does not look at her until they are back on earth. Jupiter hurls a thunderbolt which causes Orpheus to turn and look at his wife, with the result that Eurydice can stay in hell and whoop it up, and Orpheus is free of his hated spouse.

In Friedrich’s production, Act One is a contemporary setting of a rural area with telephone poles and industrial smokestacks in the background. Eurydice is wearing a peignoir over a short slip, stockings and high heels. When she suggests an “open marriage” to Orpheus, the observing “Public Opinion” remarks, “This is Berlin, not Dallas”, and in fact Mignenes’ outfit and big hair does make her look like one of the Ewing ladies.

Act Two features an elaborate set of the “Hotel Olympe”, recently re-named from “Hotel Walhalla,” with a big staircase going to an upper level where most of the action takes place. The “Valhall motif” from the Ring makes appearances as various characters ascend. The gods and goddesses are in 19th century dresses and uniforms.

Act Three in Hell features a staircase going down to the depths. There is a built-out extension to the stage area going round the orchestra pit so the singers and dancers can cross from one side of the stage to the other close to the audience.

The stand out performance for me was George Shirley as Pluto. He is helped by the fact that he is allowed to sing and speak the majority of his role in French, perhaps to indicate that he is an “ambassador” from another country, Hell. He sings his music with a sense of fun, as well as an appropriate elegance and grace; not for nothing was Offenbach known as “the Mozart of the Champs-Élysées.”  Shirley also makes a very handsome devil.

Migenes foregoes elegance in favour of an earthy sluttiness, while Donald Grobe as her husband projects a schoolmasterly air. The rather elderly heldentenor Beirer is an acceptable Jupiter and it is quite a hoot to see Varnay as his outraged wife. Martin reveals a very lovely voice as Diana. None of these performers could really be called idiomatic in terms of French operetta and there are long passages of German spoken dialogue with then-topical references to German politics and locations in Berlin. Jesús López-Cobos is the conductor. Sound and picture are very good, there are options for German or English subtitles only (no French!)

There are two reasons, besides Shirley’s performance, to buy this DVD, both in Act Three.  One is a hysterical number with Public Opinion, played by Carol Malone, who speaks rather than sings most of her role, giving orders to the policewomen she has brought down to Hell to enforce morality. The chorus girls, dancing as well as singing, are dressed in fishnet stockings and leather jerkins with policeman’s helmets and if the effect is at least as much something from  a Brecht/Weill piece as it is Offenbachian, it is still quite wonderful and I had to watch it five times in a row.

The other highlight is the culminating “Infernal galop” with about 30 dancers doing the can-can in the traditional outfits all over the huge stage, very exhilarating. The other DVD of Orphée aux Enfers I am aware of is much more idiomatic under the direction of Marc Minkowski in a  Laurent Pelly production from Lyon with a generally younger, sexier cast led by Natalie Dessay. However that production disappoints me with its staging of the “Infernal Galop”– they do not have traditional “Can-Can” dancers with girls doing high kicks and showing their frilly knickers as this Berlin production does, which seems more fun to me, so I am happy to have both versions.