Opera Scotland

Orpheus in the Underworld Orphée aux enfers

Music

Jacques Offenbach (born Cologne, 20 June 1819; died Paris, 5 October 1880)

Text

Hector Crémieux, revised by Ludovic Halévy.

Source

Classical Greek literature.

 

Premieres

First performance: Paris (Bouffes-Parisiens), 21 October 1858.

Revised version: Paris (Théâtre de la Gaîté), 7 February 1874.

First UK performance: London (Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket), 26 December 1865.

First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal) 14 April 1870.

Scottish Opera premiere: Glasgow (Citizens Theatre), 8 September 2011.

 

Background

Orpheus began as a lightweight satirical burlesque show, but following the success of some of his later operettas, it was revived and expanded into something far more substantial. The final scene, set in Hell, concludes with a wildly popular dance, the galop infernale, which is known nowadays as the can-can. Gluck’s version of the story was popular in Paris at the time (in the recent Berlioz arrangement starring Pauline Viardot), and Offenbach takes the chance to quote liberally from it, though that fact would have escaped early audiences in Britain, where the Gluck was still unknown.

 

Main Characters

Orphée, a musician (tenor)

Eurydice, his wife (soprano)

Aristée/Pluton (tenor)

Opinion Publique (mezzo-soprano)

Jupiter (baritone)

Junon, his wife (mezzo-soprano)

John Styx (tenor)

 

Plot Summary

Orpheus is a musician, but his wife is tired of his constant fiddling, and both partners now find the marriage completely stale. Eurydice has taken a fancy to a shepherd and travelling honey merchant, Aristaeus, who has been courting her. This is actually the Lord of the Underworld, Pluto, in disguise.  To further his affair with Eurydice he decides to kill her off. He places a snake in the vicinity, which duly bites her, and, to her great delight, she dies and is transported to Hell. Orpheus is equally pleased at the news of his wife’s demise. However Public Opinion reminds him that such an attitude is unacceptable and that he must get his wife back. (In the English version used by Sadler’s Wells, this character becomes Calliope, Muse of Poetry and mother of Orpheus). The hero duly visits Olympus to ask for Jupiter’s help. The gods are in revolt due to the boredom of their lifestyle, so Jupiter takes them all on a visit to the underworld to sort things out. On arrival, Jupiter disguises himself as a fly, and meets Euridice, who he finds rather attractive. So when, as agreed, Orpheus takes his wife away, subject to the condition that he not look back at her, Jupiter hurls a thunderbolt at him. This makes him turn round, so Eurydice is forfeit again, and the work ends with her and the gods in the underworld holding a celebration party.

The Cast

Apollo
 
Aurora
 
Bacchus
 god of wine
Calliope
 Muse of Poetry, mother of Orpheus
Calliope's Chauffeur
 
Cerberus
 the three-headed watch-dog of Hades
Ceres
 
Chloe
 Orpheus's girl-friend
Cupid
 Venus's son, the God of Love
Diana
 
Eurydice
 wife of Orpheus
Hebe
 
Janus
 
John Styx
 the dead king of Boeotia
Juno
 Jupiter's wife
Jupiter
 Father of all the Gods
Lift Man
 
Mars
 
Mercury
 Jupiter's messenger
Minerva
 
Neptune
 
Orpheus
 
Pluto
 Lord of the Underworld
Pomona
 
Public Opinion
 
Saturn
 
Venus
 
Vulcan
 Venus's husband

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