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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Orphée aux enfers - Opéra-bouffon in two acts (1858) [120:00]
Orpheus – Alexandru Badea (tenor); Eurydice – Elizabeth Vidal (soprano); Jupiter – Dale Duesing (baritone); Pluto/Aristeus – Reinaldo Macias (tenor); John Styx - André Jung (actor); Public Opinion – Desirée Meiser (actor); Juno – Jacqueline van Quaille (soprano); Venus – Michele Patzakis (soprano); Cupid – Marie-Noelle de Callatay (soprano); Diana – Sonja Theodoridou (soprano); Minerva – Laurence Misonne (soprano); Mercury – Franck Cassard (tenor); Cereberus – Thomas Stache (actor)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie/Patrick Davin
Herbert Wernicke (director, sets, costumes and lighting)
rec. live, La Monnaie, Brussels, 1997
Picture: 16:9
Sound: PCM stereo
Region code: 0
NTSC
Subtitles: French, English, German, Spanish
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100403 DVD [120:00]

I share the common view that Orphée aux enfers is not just one of Offenbach’s best and funniest works but also one of the best works of musical theatre by any composer. This is based on seeing many live performances and listening to many recordings.

That said, anyone whose knowledge of the work was restricted to this production could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about it. In brief, what we see and hear here lacks sparkle, style or wit, and is frankly tedious. Much energy is expended by the performers, especially by Dale Duesing whose hyperactive Jupiter is by a considerable margin the best thing here, but even this is to diminishing effect as the work goes on and the same stale routines are repeated. I can see no objection to changing the locale of the action or even the action itself where there is some point to it. In this case, however, there seems to be no obvious gain in setting the scenes in Olympus and having the Underworld instead in an upmarket Brussels café. Add to this the spectacular but irrelevant injection of a tram crashing into the set between acts. This change of setting, and the dressing and characterisation of the Gods and Goddesses in Olympus as a collection of debauched upper-class idiots merely makes explicit what is implicit and indeed obvious in the original. The loss of this distancing effect nonetheless diminishes rather than increases the humour of the work.

However, the good things first. As I have indicated, Dale Duesing sings, acts and dances making the most of the gift of a part that Jupiter presents. It would be wonderful to see him in this part in a less obvious production. Similarly Alexandru Badea makes a very fresh Orpheus, with the probably unique attribute in the first scene of not merely singing but also of playing the violin obbligato himself. Most of the rest of the main parts are adequately taken but it is hard to understand the logic of casting actors as Public Opinion and John Styx. Although there have been many very successful productions of Offenbach using singing actors that is hard to justify where it applies to only two members of the cast. Although Desirée Meiser shows later that she can sing for some reason in her duet with Orpheus that ends the first scene she merely speaks her lines, ruining one of the best numbers in the work. Presumably this, like so many oddities of this production, was an idea of Herbert Wernicke, and it is by no means the worst or least funny. Particularly unfunny are the over-extended drunk scenes for John Styx and the use of the old “chair removed just as someone sits down” routine.

Humour is a very individual concept and it may well be that others will find this production much more appealing than I do. If listened to with closed eyes there are enjoyable moments, especially from Dale Duesing and Alexandru Badea but the heavily unfunny production means that as a whole this is a disc to be approached with caution and limited expectations.
 
John Sheppard