Richard Bratby

More misogynistic than the original: ENO’s Orpheus in the Underworld reviewed

Plus: one of the most masterful and affecting vocal performances I've ever heard at the Coliseum – but close your eyes

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.

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