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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Orpheus in der Unterwelt (sung in German) (1858)
Pluto/Aristaeus: William Workman; Eurydice: Elisabeth Steiner; Diana: Regina Marheineke; Jupiter: Toni Blankenheim; Public Opinion: Liselotte Pulver; Orpheus: Kurt Marschner; Juno: Inge Meysel; John Styx: Theo Lingen; Venus: Urszula Koszut;
Mercury: Peter Haage; Minerva: Cvetka Ahlin; Mars: Franz Grundheber; Eros: Heinz Kruse; Thalia: Renate Schubert; Vulcan: Ernst Umlandt; Hebe: Sabine Nolde; Flora: Ingeborg Kersten; Hercules: Friedhelm Brill; Iris: Margot Lund; Charon: Frank Straass; Erato: Helga Simon; Macquilla: Uta-Maria Flake; Ceres: Elfriede Zimmer.
Ballet and Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera, The Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg/Marek Janowski. Adapted for the studio by Joachim Hess
rec. 1971, released 2006. Region 0, NTSC, Dolby Digital (mono). Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101267 [101:00]

Like all good satire, Offenbach’s send up of antiquity and the scandals of the Second Empire is easily updated – and this production is no exception. The brainchild of Hamburg Opera’s general director Rolf Liebermann, this crude piece of 1960s tat may have been considered mildly subversive in 1971 but now it just looks plain silly. The performance, adapted for the studio by Joachim Hess, has actors and singers trying ineptly to lip-sync with a pre-recorded tape, all of which adds a general air of ineptitude to the already chaotic proceedings. Of course if one assumes the production has its tongue firmly wedged in its cheek then that is probably an asset, not a liability.
At the start of Act I the figure of Public Opinion appears in hot pants and thigh-length boots. A bit of a dominatrix she isn’t averse to using her microphone cable to whip everyone into line. The story over which she presides is familiar enough: Eurydice is bored with her husband, Professor Orpheus, well-known musician and womaniser. She comes straight out of a Mary Quant ad, all lip gloss and attitude, miming in close up while ‘Orphie’ (I kid you not) scratches away at his infernal violin. The minimalist props are of the MFI school of design and appear as flaky as an early Star Trek set.
All very bizarre but, depending on your point of view, it gets better/worse. The shepherd Aristaeus (Pluto in disguise) has been sent to fetch Eurydice to the Underworld. Only too pleased to be rid of ‘Orphie’ she flirts with ‘Ari-pooh’ (again, I kid you not). Aristaeus, wearing one of those puffy leather-look caps one associates with Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch and what appears to be part of a shag pile carpet, tempts Eurydice into the cornfield where she is bitten by a snake and taken down to Hades. But Public Opinion cracks the whip again – literally - and for the sake of mythology and future prestige instructs the hapless Orpheus to go to hell and get her back
In Act II Heaven, in the shape of Mount Olympus, is a place of unrelieved boredom and barefaced bitchiness. Venus, Eros, Diana and Mars - the latter sporting a Bismarck moustache and bedecked with medals - all bemoan their lot while Jupiter - affectionately known by his wife Juno as ‘Joopie’ - has his own matrimonial problems, not to mention very poor dress sense. The attire in this production is wildly eclectic to say the least, with exaggerated panto-style costumes, flimsy headgear and general Vivienne Westwood-style wackiness. Not to mention Mercury putt-putting into the studio on one of those trendy little motorised bikes. More high camp than high fashion, it’s all so endearingly daft.
The arrival of Public Opinion and Orpheus relieves the Olympian monotony. According to the booklet Jupiter and his camp followers set out to find ‘Eurydike’, abandoning one kind of hell for another. And it seems hell isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either; it certainly isn’t much different from Heaven/Olympus. Held captive in Pluto’s tacky ‘boudoir’ Eurydice is watched over by the fawning, faintly sinister old lecher John Styx (cue a smutty double-entendre or two). Pluto hides her from the descending troupe but Jupiter – in a truly Freudian transformation – turns himself into a fly to get to Eurydice’s hiding place via the keyhole. This episode, replete with orchestral and vocal humming and buzzing, is utterly compelling in its ghastliness. The swooping camerawork merely adds to the hallucinogenic quality of this set-piece, which takes on a Mel Brooks flavour when Eros and his jack-booted Love Police join the search for Eurydike (sic) and the fly.
Act IV gets off to a good start with a stately if garish minuet and the famous ‘can can infernal’. Here the curiously jerky camera becomes possessed, zooming in on the regiment of boots and swishing skirts. It is all so manic, even anarchic, but by this stage one simply has to surrender to its madness.
Meanwhile Jupiter is forced to let Eurydice return to the land of the living but only on condition that Orpheus does not look back as he leaves. An arrow from Eros’ bow makes Orpheus turn round but Pluto and Jupiter have a Plan B: Eurydice can belong to no man but instead will enjoy a heady, intoxicating life as a bacchante. All’s well that end well, it seems; Public Opinion returns to earth with a relieved, single, Orpheus and even Juno, so concerned by ‘Joopie’s’ wandering eye, is satisfied with this outcome. They all celebrate with a rousing, nay riotous, can-can.
Liebermann’s is certainly a weird, trippy take on the Orpheus myth. Indeed, everything about it, from the bizarre costumes and staging to the crude lip sync and demented camerawork, epitomises the excesses of the sixties. As for the music and singing, conveyed in boxy mono, they just don’t stand a chance under all this tack.
The booklet has a plot synopsis, some interesting background on Offenbach and Orpheus and brief biographies of key singers and actors. More on the ‘cosmopolitan polyglot’ Liebermann and his (in)famous Hamburg productions - of which Orpheus was only one - would have been useful. As an exercise in pure 1960s kitsch this production is fascinating but as an opera performance it is an unmitigated disaster. For ageing hippies and nostalgia buffs only.
Dan Morgan


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