Great moments in opera: Orfée aux enfers

September 9, 2011

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis selected the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as an example of a story that taps an imaginative vein so profound and powerful, and is so purely conceived, that it has value in itself, ‘a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work’. One wonders if he knew about Orfée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), Offenbach’s raucous and irreverent version of the tale. I do believe that he’d have cringed.

The story has been central to the operatic tradition since the beginning: it was the subject of what is generally regarded as the first opera, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice. Monteverdi turned to it for one of his greatest successes, L’Orfeo. And when Gluck wanted to revitalize a genre that he felt had grown stale and decadent he returned to it again in Orfeo ed Euridice. None of that deterred — and very likely encouraged — Offenbach to write Orfée aux enfers, in which, as in La belle Helene, the sacred ground of grand opera is invaded by farce, tom-foolery, and caustic wit.

In this version, Orpheus and Eurydice are a bickering couple apparently on the verge of a break-up. Orpheus is (as is proper) a great musician, but Eurydice loathes his music. Abducted by Pluto, she is taken to the underworld, and Orpheus is, at first, relieved. He undertakes a rescue only out of concern for what others will think of him if he does not. Meanwhile, the gods of the underworld are portrayed as lazy, drunken, spoiled brats, living lives of luxury and stupidity. As in the myth, Orpheus may not look back at Eurydice as he leads her out, on pain of losing her forever, and, as in the myth, he does look back, but this is considered a comedic, rather than tragic, conclusion.

This week I watched a DVD performance of this oper(ett)a starring Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri, with the orchestra of Opera National de Lyon conducted by Mark Minkowski. Dessay is likable enough in this role: feisty and slightly goofy. One or two obscene and unnecessary staging decisions mar the production, which is otherwise quite enjoyable. There is a fair bit of spoken dialogue on stage, which is a drag, and disinclines me to watch it again.

At the top of this post I have embedded a short video of the finale, a reprise of the galop infernal, which is more popularly known as the ‘Can-can’, and is probably Offenbach’s best-known music. Here I include another excerpt to give a more representative flavour of what the piece sounds like. In this clip Pluto accosts Eurydice and takes her to the underworld. English subtitles are included.

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