In any opera we expect to appreciate the music and Offenbach packs in some stonking good tunes. In fact, the music of Orpheus in the Underworld has become so ingrained in our popular culture that you have doubtless heard it in commercials, being hummed in coffee shops, or reinterpreted by popular musicians - almost on a daily basis.
But with Orpheus, the music is only the beginning. One of Offenbach’s great masterpieces, Orpheus in the Underworld is one of the most performed and popular operettas in the world, but it wasn't always so. When it first premiered, notable reviewer Jacques Janin called it “an assault on common sense,” the resulting scandal, of course, is responsible for much of its early box-office success.
In a world where status, power and respect are all contingent on reputation, Public Opinion reigns supreme and keeping up appearances becomes the job of a lifetime (or afterlife, as the case may be). Unfortunately for the characters, this job often comes into direct conflict with their desire for excitement. The show is laden with wit, political and sexual satire, and some great characters to boot. Public Opinion seeks to rework the classic Greek story of Orpheus and Euridice to make it a moral tale for the ages. A mortal couple, bored with their marriage and seeking entertainment elsewhere, they end up travelling from earth to Olympus and the Underworld in an ill-advised quest to save face.
Offenbach brilliantly satirized the establishment of his time, and in our time, what greater establishment is there than corporate commercialism. The Gods of Mount Olympus are constantly on display for the mortals— imagine they exist in a shop window. If Harrods or Selfridges did a “Greek Gods” display this would be it. Everything is perfect, clouds of tissue paper and beautiful shopping bags adorn the set, everyone is a perfect mannequin – dull and bored out of their minds – ambrosia is the ‘food of the moment,’ (think coconut water and chia seeds). But in the Underworld appearance is very different, it’s all about wine, spirits, and a dirty burger.
Offenbach was preoccupied with the sound of language. With an almost Shakespearean wit, he consistently employed onomatopoeia to illustrate character— when Diana sings, we hear the sounds of the Goddess of the hunt; “Ton ton ton tae ton ton.” With Mercury, the fleet-footed “et hop, et hop,” — the nimble steps of the messenger of the gods. There’s also an aria in which Cupid sings in kissing noises, and a duet with some buzzing— but I won’t give that away.
The legendary Can-Can, the most well-known of the music in the opera, is only one in the wave of hummable, catchy and addictive tunes that give Orpheus its enduring charm. But that’s just the beginning and this is truly operetta at its best. It will make you laugh, it will make you think, and most of all, it will leave you with some seriously great music seriously stuck in your head.