I was expecting to be entertained by the Virginia Opera’s rendition of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, directed by Sam Helfrich, which played at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts last night, but I wasn’t expecting to be delighted. I was.
That’s not surprising, actually, given the high musical and dramatic reputations of the Virginia Opera and Conductor Anne Manson, and the obvious talents and hard work of its musicians, designers, and crew, and of this well-selected cast.
Going in, I had no idea what to anticipate, other than that I’d be seeing a musical burlesque show, an 1858 artsy-decadent sendup of one of those beautiful, tragic Greek myths already lampooned by Ovid 2,000 years ago. The Virginia Opera does provide that experience, even if the burlesque is somewhat tame, as one would expect given the conditions of the show’s production We aren’t, after all, in the seedy underground of 19th century Paris, the city that a year before the opera’s premier saw the publication – albeit the scandalous publication – of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.
Not that there’s anything all that evil about Orpheus in the Underworld, even when you consider that nearly half the action takes place in Hades where a large group of amoral gods mill about, and dance, and kick up their heels, in glowing devil horns.It’s just a helluva lot of fun.
The premise of the plot is that Orpheus (Javier Abreu) is a terrible boor. He can’t stand his wife Eurydice (Meredith Lustig), hardly any more, at least, than she can stand him. His only concerns are music (“He plays the violin – terribly,” says Eurydice; “She’s got no taste,” says Orpheus; in this case, he’s right, say I, judging by my ears), lounging about and rolling his eyes, and satisfying the domineering huffery-puffery of Public Opinion (Margary Gawrysiak), a pompous and prim old matron dressed up in a bizarre checkered monochrome outfit, complete with turban, all in the color of “blah.”
Eurydice’s got an affair going on with the neighbor-next-door “shepherd boy,” whom she sings about in a lovely ditty while arranging flowers. Soon she’s dead, whether because her life’s so boring, or someone’s put out a hit on her, or because her lover’s actually Pluto-in-disguise (Daniel Curran), the cthonic god of death and wealth, and king of the underworld. Having passed away, she’s free to make off with her boyfriend to his underground home; but before leaving, the deceased Eurydice writes her husband a considerate note informing him that she’s died and left. “She should know, I guess,” is the phlegmatic Orpheus’ blunted reaction.
The scene shifts to Mount Olympus, where the gods are passed out – drunk, gluttonous, and lazy – in what appears to be a nightmare banality of a hotel/conference center banquet room in unimaginative décor. Nothing livens up much until Mercury flies in, showing off his smooth shiny silvery suit, quicksilver come to life. The only costume that can match this cheery blaze, perhaps, is Jupiter’s almost glowing metallic-apple green fly suit in the next act, in which he tries to seduce and abduct the eternally bored Eurydice.
From here on out the plot dissolves into a bunch of nonsense as the gods head for good times and fun in hell, as it very much should. A lesser production could easily drag, though the music is lively and keeps things going. The Virginia Opera’s production never drags. It more or less goes from strength to strength. It’s a splendor above all, perhaps, of color, light, and brilliantly comic, and flashpoint and brilliant design by Set Designer Andrew Lieberman, Costume Designer Kaye Voyce, Lighting Designer Aaron Black, and Wig and Makeup Designer Jim McGough.
I knew I was in for something special the moment the curtain rose to reveal a scene, that I have to say, made my jaw drop and laughter rise. I won’t go into the details so as not to ruin the effect, but Lighting and Set Designers Aaron Black and Andrew Liebermann are brilliant designers.
There’s some fine mime acting as music plays, until Public Opinion gets up importantly from her place, set between oblivious Orpheus and disgruntled Eurydice, to come downstage and deliver a silly, silly monologue.
The acting is fine throughout, comic struts and timing are uperb. Lines not sung are spoken (there’s no recitative here, just arias and choral songs), and the language throughout is English, a snappy, contemporary, not-so-literal fun translation. Margarat Gawrysiak is brilliant as Public Opinion. Troy Cook excels as Jupiter. Daniel Curran’s Pluto is the standout performance.
The best musical numbers of the night were the duets and mulit-singer (non-choral) songs, with the singers comically playing off each other’s energy; these sequences also featured a lot the most dynamic choreography, as the characters act and react to each other physically, emotionally, and rhetorically.
One of my favorites was the opening duet “So that’s how you feel?” with Orpheus and Eurydice bickering at the breakfast table; the nature of their relationship is instantly, comically established. The same scene has Eurydice singing the lovely “A nymph in love, ever dreaming” about Aristeus the shepherd boy, rubbing it in Orpheus’ face with a coquettish flourish Just as good is the duet between Eurydice and Aristeus/Pluto as they flirt in a cornfield.
The standout numbers of the second act are those with Eurydice, the sad, hopeful John Styx (Brian Mextorf), who’s unrequited love annoys her, and Jupiter (Troy Cook), who’s come there in a fly suit to seduce her.
Also notable is “Ha-ha-ha,” a group number from the Olympus scene in the first act. Jupiter, whose not as pompous and stiff – or respectable – as he wants to seem, is given a wicked roast over by the rest of gods, especially Cupid (Kelly Gliptis) and Diana (Katherine Polit), whose part – and singing – is especially lovely.
The direction by Sam Helfrinch makes good use of the rather attenuated stage space (which is wide but shallow, with the backdrop not far back from the curtain), though his options with the large and cramped chorus were rather limited by the same. Where his work really excelled was in the actor-on-actor interactions. The singers spend a good deal of time facing the audience, but they don’t just stand there in a vacuum, they move around and relate. The standout scene in this regard was Eurydice bored in hell, singing “Sorry I came” then springing into action – and reaction – as John Styx and Jupiter try to court her affections.
The most surprising thing to me about this production is how beautiful it is. From the sublimely luminously over-the-top tutti-frutti shocker of a curtain rise to the black shadow cast against a wall-pool of blue light as the desperately unchaste Diana swings high and aloft on a harp frame suspended by chain above the underworld cave floor, singing like a bird, I found myself, here and there, strangely moved, which isn’t supposed to happen in a farce But when it does, so much the better.
Kudos to the Virginia Opera’s Orpheus in the Underworld! I was thoroughly entertained!
There’s still a matinee at George Mason this afternoon at 2 PM, and the show’s playing in Richmond next Friday night (10/9) and Sunday (10/11). Should you make it? Yes, you should — if and if you can-can, if and if you can-can, yes oh yes oh yes if and if you can!
Running Time; Two and a half hours, including an intermission.