Orpheus in the Underworld

Rory Bremner's new libretto brings Offenbach's satire bang up to date

The trouble with in-jokes is that they're in one minute, out the next. Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld was full of them when the composer first produced it in Les Bouffes-Parisiens, his theatre on the Champs-Élysées: it scabrously satirised political life and social mores under the Second Empire.

You have a straight choice if you stage Orpheus nowadays. Change nothing, and risk the blank incomprehension of modern audiences who simply don't get the 19th century references. Or do what Northern Ireland Opera has done, and commission a brand-new version of the libretto, in this case by comedian Rory Bremner, updating the jokes and restoring the cutting-edge of Offenbach's risqué original humour.

Bremner's re-write certainly pulls no punches in terms of bawdiness and blunt use of sexual terminology, but it's a brilliantly clever piece of work which, in its relentless sideswipes at the foibles of contemporary media, gives NIO artistic director, Oliver Mears, abundant opportunities to re-engage his audience with the boldly provocative spirit of Offenbach's original creation.

Mears's staging concentrates on creating clearly defined contemporary personas for the onstage characters, many of whom are cast as gods of classical antiquity. Thus Jupiter, god of gods, becomes a lecherous adulterer and laughing stock of his fellow deities, while Pluto, who should be ruling the underworld, is busier dallying with Eurydice in his human incarnation as Aristaeus.

Eurydice, mythologically an oak nymph (cue obvious joke from Bremner) is in Mears’s conception Essex girl in excelsis, all short skirts, sloppy vowel-sounds and attention span deficit. Her earthly husband Orpheus is, by contrast, a posing aesthete, more interested in violin-playing and writing symphonies than his wife’s capricious hankerings.

You need singers who can really act (far from being automatically the case in opera) to pull off these boldly imagined characterisations, and fortunately Mears has got them.

Dominating the stage physically and vocally is the Jupiter of Cork baritone, Brendan Collins, the Sacristan in NIO’s Tosca earlier this year. It’s a performance rich in gestural detail and facial expression, sharply timed, and full of adroitly managed comic business. What he does with his insect wings while masquerading as a fly to seduce Eurydice is better left unmentioned in the pages of a family publication.

Jane Harrington’s Eurydice is another splendidly colourful impersonation, full of sex and sassiness, a teasing foil to Dublin baritone, Gavin Ring’s swaggeringly libidinous Aristaeus, a tour de force of blustering hormonal braggadocio.

Tenor Nicholas Sharratt plays Orpheus as a bearded Kenneth Williams (whom Sharratt passingly resembles), his broken violin a humiliating visual symbol of what Eurydice clearly views as serious dysfunctions in another department.

The succession of backcloths, peeled away by cast members as each new layer of the action develops, use blowsy tabloid headlines and imagery to underscore the hypocrisy and sexual duplicity of the ruling classes, who fiddle (often literally) while London burns and expect to get away with it.

All the principal singers are vocally strong and effective, the smaller roles a little less so, especially when singing from the bar stools towards the rear of the set in Act Two’s wildly alcoholic, drug-fuelled party.

The pit-band of ten players was crisply conducted by Derek Clark, using Tony Burke’s scaled-down orchestration, which seemed underpowered only in the famous 'Can-can' of the finale.

This is a good evening for Northern Ireland Opera, still very much a fledgling organisation. It confirms what the Derry~Londonderry Tosca had already strongly suggested – that in Oliver Mears a very astute choice has been made of artistic director to take the company forward.

This fast-moving, sharply intelligent, visually attractive staging of Offenbach’s little masterpiece of folly and frippery underlines Mears’s credentials as a director with a clear, coherent vision of the pieces he’s producing, and the ability to elicit excellent performances from his singing actors.

NIO’s next production, also by Mears, will be Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera Hansel and Gretel, at Belfast’s Grand Opera House in November. It should be very much worth seeing.

Orpheus in the Underworld finishes its run at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh on November 4.