Orphée aux enfers (Jacques Offenbach) – criticism


Opéra bouffon in two acts and four scenes

By Jacques Offenbach

Libretto : Hector Crémieux

First performed : Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Paris, 21 October 1858, conducted by Offenbach.

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.

My review.

Dossier (with costume and set designs, illustrations, and musical structure)

Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869

Opéra bouffon represented at the Bouffes-Parisiens on October 21, 1858. This coarse and grotesque parody, which begins by transforming Orpheus into a violin master, teaching lessons in a city, and ending in a populace dance vulgarly called the cancan, obtained an immense success throughout European society.  This vogue has already lasted several years and will probably be renewed again.  This piece having earned its authors all kinds of advantages, even the honorable favors which the government gladly gives to success, if not always to what is beautiful and useful, has served as a signal for the manufacture of coin of the same kind, and all the theaters have been flooded to the detriment of taste, spirit, and art. The opéra buffon of Orphée aux enfers inaugurated a new era in the history of music. It’s a date.  It is the starting point of a whole generation of composers.  Almost all of them have gravitated, and gravitate, around this luminous star, which in our eyes is merely a smoky lantern, spreading a pale gleam and exhaling an unhealthy odor. It was not long before we perceived that we had entered a fatal path; but the impulse had been too strongly given to put a check on it.  La Belle Hélène, in its turn, corroborates this kind of buffoonery, which replaces the pleasures of the mind and ear, the emotions of the heart, with the grossest sensations and excitations. After having given our opinion on the nature of this work, we shall briefly describe the composition of the play and the details of the score. Orpheus is a clown (un drôle) who hates his wife Eurydice.  She, on her side, is a drunkard (une drôlesse) who is courted both by the honey maker Aristæus, who is none other than Pluto disguised, and by Jupiter. This master of the gods turns into a fly to penetrate Eurydice’s room. Eurydice also has a transient lover in the person of the son of an ancient king of Boeotia, called John Styx, Pluto’s domestyx.  At the moment when Orpheus brings his wife Eurydice back from hell, in spite of himself and in spite of her, invitus invitam, Jupiter gives him an Olympian kick that forces him to turn around. But he cannot say: omnis effusus labor.  All the gods and goddesses then give themselves up to a disheveled bacchanalia, accompanied by a great deal of dust and noise.  Orphée aux enfers was performed by Léonce, Désiré, Tayau, Bache, Mlles Tautin, Garnier, Macé, Enjalbert, Geoffroy, Chabert, and Cico. The principal tunes of the score, danced everywhere, are those of the couplets of the son of the king of Boeotia, Eurydice, and Aristæus, from the Barque à Caron, galops, and ensembles.  Many of these melodies would not lack charm and originality if they were not associated with the memory of the most grotesque and indecent scenes.

Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, supplement, 1876

It was reprised as an opéra féerique in four acts and 12 tableaux, at the théâtre de la Gaîté on 7 February 1874.  Under this new, highly developed form, Orphée obtained the same success as in 1858, with this difference that instead of amusing a small gathering of idle spectators belonging to a well-to-do class, it attracted the crowd, and has contributed to spreading among the working classes the disastrous taste for the operetta and the café-concert.


Source: Association l’Art Lyrique Français