ORPHÉE AUX ENFERS
Opéra bouffon in two acts and four scenes
Libretto : Hector Crémieux
First performed : Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Paris, 21 October 1858, conducted by Offenbach.
The first of Offenbach’s full-length operettas, and a smash hit.
Revised as an opéra féerique in four acts and twelve scenes, with libretto by Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy. Performed: Théâtre de la Gaité, Paris, 7 February 1874, conducted by Offenbach.
The opera is a parody of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and specifically of Gluck’s opera.
Orpheus, in this version, is not the greatest musician known to antiquity, but director of the Theban choral society, an employee of the municipal council of Thebes, who charges for his lessons. And, far from lamenting the death of his wife Eurydice, he’s unhappily married, and would gladly be rid of her. He much prefers the company of nymphs, while she’s rather taken with the shepherd Aristæus (a minor god of bee-keeping). This scandalises Public Opinion, guardian of moral conventions, who, addressing the audience directly, says that the wife who deceives her husband, or the husband who’s unfaithful to his wife, had better watch out. (Relax, though, she’s only talking about the characters in the play, not those in the audience!)
Orpheus may have invented hexameter verses, he may scrape away at his violin – but he is, in his wife’s eyes, the most boring man in existence.
Orpheus would get a divorce – if doing so wouldn’t hurt his worldly position. He is, he tells her, a slave to public opinion – but he’ll defend his reputation as a husband. He’s laid a trap for her lover in the wheat fields, so beware!
Aristæus appears, and sings of the simple pleasures of a shepherd’s life: watching the bees gather honey, the sheep frolic in the plains, and the shepherd take the shepherdess by surprise.
Eurydice is bitten by a serpent (Orpheus’ trap), and dies. Death seldom stopped anyone in Greek mythology, though – particularly when her lover Aristæus is really Pluto in disguise. Eurydice leaves her husband a message – “I’m leaving because I’m dead… I’ve gone to the devil” – and goes to hell.
Orpheus is relieved to be a widower – but, just as he’s about to rush off to his nymphet, he hears Public Opinion approaching. Orpheus can’t carry on like that, she tells him; he must petition Jupiter himself to restore his “beloved” Eurydice. For the edification of posterity, we must have at least one example of a husband who wanted his wife back.
The Classical gods – Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, and the rest – are asleep on Mount Olympus. There’s little else to do, under Jupiter’s stultifying reign. There follows a sort of variety show, as deities (including Cupid, Venus, Diana, and Mercury) present themselves. Jupiter (notorious for his philandering) is determined to present a façade of moral rectitude – even if it means bumping off his children’s lovers. “Gorblimey!” says the puissant king of the gods; “kiddos, the weak mortals have their eyes on us! Let’s keep up appearances, at least!” Particularly when the scandal-mongering journalists are writing nasty gossip columns. The scandal of the hour is the disappearance of Eurydice. Jupiter accuses Pluto of kidnapping the mortal.
The gods, fed up with Jupiter, revolt:
The piece has echoes of the strains of the Marseillaise, at that time a revolutionary anthem. Siegfried Kracauer (Orpheus in Paris, trans. 1938) argues that the opera, under its comic exterior, is an angry, political work, attacking the corrupt régime of Napoleon III, and the complacent, bourgeois Second Empire.
Jupiter may pose as a paragon of all the virtues, but is his record so clean? He’s seduced women disguised as their husband (which wouldn’t work for most of them), bulls, a shower of gold, and a swan (“Take me to your Leda!”).
Orpheus and Public Opinion arrive. Jupiter orders the gods to stop fighting, and be on their best Sunday behaviour – “Everything for decorum, and by decorum!” Orpheus (quoting Gluck’s “Che farò senza Euridice”) appeals to the gods to let him go to Hades in search of his wife – and Jupiter, seizing on the distraction, announces that they’ll all go.
Hell, you see, is more fun than heaven. In Olympus, the gods sit around snoozing, quaffing nectar and ambrosia – while hell is for people who like the other sorts of things.
Eurydice, though, is bored. She’s been alone in Pluto’s boudoir for two days, with only a dumb servant for company. And that servant, John Styx, has fallen in love with her. He wasn’t always a servant, he tells her; once, he was the son of a great prince of Bœotia:
Jupiter tries to seduce Eurydice – disguised as a giant fly. What other opera has the king of the gods disguised as a fly, or a duet with the lyrics “Bzzzzz!”?
Jupiter arranges to help Eurydice escape. Pluto is holding a feast for the gods, Eurydice should attend in disguise, and then slip off when all the guests leave. He then buzzes off.
At the feast, Eurydice, disguised as a Bacchante, entertains the gods by singing a hymn to the god of alcohol. Everyone then dances a Galop infernal, better known as the Can-Can:
Pluto sees through Eurydice’s disguise – and reminds Jupiter that he’s promised to restore her to her husband. Jupiter reluctantly agrees, but gives Orpheus one condition: he must lead her back to the mortal world without glancing back at her. If he looks back, she will be lost to him. Jupiter, though, cheats; he throws a thunderbolt at Orpheus, who leaps into the air, whirls, shouts “What!” – and glances back at his wife. Who promptly vanishes. Orpheus has lost her (a happy ending for him), and his wife becomes a bacchante. “But that isn’t in mythology,” Pluto protests. “Very well! We’ll remake mythology!”
Confession: I like Orphée aux enfers more than Gluck’s Orfeo. That would have shocked many high-minded critics in nineteenth-century Paris, for whom Offenbach’s parody was a sort of sacrilege, an affront to both Gluck and the Greek gods.
The Greeks themselves, though, would have seen in Offenbach a successor to Aristophanes, their brilliant comic playwright who sent up both serious art (particularly the plays of Euripides) and mythology.
Orphée, with the good humour and cleverness of Asterix the Gaul or Terry Pratchett, turns the classics on their head. He puts everyday people, with contemporary mores, into unreal, historical, or mythological situations, to poke fun at conventions.
Offenbach’s target is humbug and hypocrisy. The most powerful force is Public Opinion, god of “but what will the neighbours say?”, before whom both gods and mortals quail. Orpheus wants to divorce his wife, but the scandal would end his career; he pretends to be a devoted husband, to set an example to posterity. The Olympians pretend to be a happy, well-adjusted family when Public Opinion comes calling, while Jupiter keeps up the appearance of respectability; if he is not virtuous, at least let him appear so. Appearances are all.
The satire is set to one of Offenbach’s typically brilliant scores. Offenbach proves himself one of opera’s great melodists, blessed with a gift for a tune that sticks in the ear, and a wit, deftness, and clarity that more “serious” composers lack. (And who’s to say that seriousness is a virtue?)
Everybody knows the Cancan, which has come to symbolise Paris: racy, decadent, yet ever so much fun. That would be enough to make Orphée a success, but the score is full of gems. I often find myself humming the Rondeau des Métamorphoses or “Si j’étais roi de Béotie”. Offenbach is as adept at more inward, lyrical numbers (Eurydice’s arias) as he is at Meyerbeerian ensembles, with their lignes brisées, counterpoint, and crescendi.
Offenbach revised the opera in 1874, turning it from a two-act opéra bouffon into a four-act opéra féerique, an extravaganza with twelve tableaux, ballets (of Fauns and Shepherds, Graces and Hours, and, in Aristophanic fashion, Flies), expanded numbers, and new arias. The original is tighter, but who would object to another hour of Offenbach? Several of the numbers are excellent, particularly the Rondo des Policemen, and the septet for the judges of the Underworld.
Marc Minkowski’s 1999 recording (EMI) is the original two-act version with additions from the revision. Stars Natalie Dessay (Eurydice), Laurent Naouri (Jupiter), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Pluton), Yann Beuron (Orphée), Ewa Podleś (l’Opinion Publique), Patricia Petibon (Cupidon), Jennifer Smith (Diane), Véronique Gens (Vénus), and Steven Cole (John Styx), with the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Lyon, Orchestre de chambre de Grenoble, and the Choeur de l’Opéra national de Lyon. I’m less keen on the DVD of this production, which crosses the line between wit and crudity.
1874 version: Michel Plasson’s 1979 recording (EMI), with Mady Mesplé, Jane Rhodes, Jane Berbié, Michel Sénéchal, Charles Burles, and Michel Trempont, with the Orchestre et Choeurs du Capitole de Toulouse.
There’s also a witty, stylish production, sung in German: