It’s Act Three of Emma Rice’s new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, and Eurydice (Mary Bevan) is trapped in the backroom of a Soho peep show. But that doesn’t really matter because Jupiter (Willard White), a cigar-toking love walrus in a silk bathrobe, has transformed himself into a fly and is about to ravish her, once he’s worked out the practicalities of doing so while three millimetres long. Eurydice’s more than game. ‘Zzzz, zzz,’ she sings, draping herself lasciviously over the mattress. ‘Zzzz, zzz,’ buzzes Jupiter, wings popping erect. Rice’s puppeteer darts about with a toy fly on a string, dressed in a black catsuit and (the killer detail) a beatnik beret. The audience cracked up; not a nervous titter, but the real, uncontrolled thing, with whoops and cheers.
And about time, too. Rice relocates the action to ‘London, 1957’, with a spritz of surrealism. Olympus is an upmarket lido, surrounded by a cloud-ballet of gawky men in balloon tutus. Public Opinion (Lucia Lucas) is a geezer in a black taxi (curiously, a 21st-century model) which later ascends to the heavens, and Hell is populated by dollybird waitresses and men in flasher macs. The cast is thoroughly on board with Rice’s fantasy, and they’re an engaging team, whether Ellie Laugharne’s sparky, saucy Cupid, Ed Lyon’s dopey Orpheus or, best of all, the louche, sexy baritone of Alex Otterburn, channelling Peter Stringfellow as a Pluto in spangly threads.
Add Sian Edwards in the pit — a conductor whose stock is still ludicrously undervalued — and it should have sparkled. But who’s going to laugh after Rice, in an invented prologue, has shown Orpheus and Eurydice burying their stillborn baby? Golden Age operetta operates on the tension between farcical libretti and the music that endows them with human warmth. It’s not for the director to transplant a heart into the piece — that’s Offenbach’s job — and in attempting to do so Rice has botched the whole show. How can the gently modulated melancholy of (say) Eurydice’s dying vision in Act One strike any sort of emotional chord after you’ve seen her racked (and Bevan was excellent here) by all-too-realistic depression?
Offenbach’s characters are cartoons, and cartoons with human eyes aren’t more sympathetic; they’re just creepy. So the closer Rice stuck to the original scenario — the more she leaned into the silliness — the better it worked. The fly duet delivered the first major laugh, nearly two hours in. It was also pretty much the last, because Rice rewrites the final knees-up in Hades as a grim critique of the 1950s sex industry, with Eurydice as the helpless plaything of predatory male gods. The can-can, naturally, is cancelled.
Unfortunately, no one told the music. Offenbach is out to mock contemporary pieties: Rice thumps them home. Offenbach’s score is the sound of life-affirming liberation: the new libretto wags its finger in judgment. And where Offenbach’s Eurydice confidently asserts her own sexuality, Rice makes her a victim. Misogyny is a charge that’s sometimes levelled at opera, but Rice seems to have decided that Orpheus in the Underworld isn’t misogynistic enough. And so a 21st-century director has ended up giving her heroine less agency than she was accorded by a bunch of 19th-century Frenchmen. A huge, bleak metatextual joke? #MeNeither.
This was the second in ENO’s season of operas based on the Orpheus myth. In the first, Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, Lizzie Clachan’s designs locate both Earth and the Underworld inside something resembling a colossal video installation at Tate Modern. Through this digitised wasteland, Alice Coote’s Orpheus walks a path of astonishing pathos; every sinking phrase and vaulting cry of grief shaped and shaded into one of the most masterful and affecting vocal performances I’ve heard at the Coliseum.
Her Eurydice, Sarah Tynan, is wonderfully poignant and plaintive. Soraya Mafi’s singing, as Love, is as bright and pure as crystal. But really, this is Coote’s show, supported by understated orchestral playing from Harry Bicket. The chorus is banished from the stage, so there’s little human interaction in a musical sense. Instead, director Wayne McGregor’s dancers swoop, stretch and spin around Orpheus in flickering, yearning patterns, only slightly inhibited by hideous fluorescent costumes. A semi-naked psychopomp accompanies Coote throughout, looking noble in his Y-fronts.
It’s stylish, if at times confusing. But this is Gluck, the composer who dynamited baroque conventions and whose stated intention was to express ‘the language of the heart with strong passions, striking situations and an ever-varied spectacle’. Orpheus and Eurydice is not some delicate period piece, to be tastefully reimagined: it’s radical, wrenching, emotionally realistic drama, the direct ancestor of Mozart, Wagner and Janacek. It should draw gasps of joy and dismay, not — Coote’s magnificent singing apart — murmurs of polite appreciation. Hate to say it, but this staging might be best enjoyed with your eyes closed.