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.