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Orpheus Down Under

Adapted by Tim Riley and Lynn Binstock from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. Original libretto by Ludovic Helévy & Hector Crémieux
Unexpected Opera
Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, and touring

Production photo

The 1858 original of this opera poked fun at the century old Orpheus and Eurydice of Gluck and at the way the Comédie Français performed the classical repertoire while its Olympian hanky panky reflected the scandals of mid-nineteenth century Parisian society and politics. Sexual shenanigans in the corridors of power are still with us but this version does not seem to have levelled its sights on any particular contemporary targets.

The classic myth, of course, has Eurydice killed by a snakebite. Her husband Orpheus, whose music can charm the animals, goes down to Hades to beg her back from Pluto and is granted his wish provided that as she leaves behind him he never looks back at her - he does and loses her for ever. The opera turns the loving couple into a husband and wife who can't stand each other. She fancies a local shepherd who is actually Pluto in disguise and he and Orpheus hatch a little plot to kill her. She dies and everyone could be happy but that's when a figure personifying the respectability of public opinion steps in and threatens to destroy his musical career if he doesn't support traditional marriage and rescue her from the underworld.

This version keeps the basic original plot but makes Public Opinion a Mrs Whitewash, a look back to a well-known moral vigilante of the 60s to the 80s, leading a campaign to "Keep Opera Clean." Orpheus becomes a music teacher in a sixth form college and Pluto's earthly disguise is as a folk-singer. The Olympian Gods are given a pseudo-contemporary touch by putting them in training for the Olympic Games in the hope of regaining some of their prestige among mortals and Pluto has upped Styx and moved the Underworld down under to a sunny world of surf boards and beach barbies.

The trouble is there is no real bite to it either in script or performance. The erotic duet when Jupiter seduces cockney-voiced Eurydice in the form of a golden fly is quite amusing - the fly a dot of red light that buzzes all over her body but it never quite matches the climactic moment of her orgasmic top notes.

The most lively part of the evening was centred on the best known music of the opera: the Galop Infernal (familiar to most people as the music for the can-can) which here becomes a game of beach volley ball with a section in slow motion followed by a reprise with audience participation.

If there are some gems in the new lyrics I missed them, for despite strong soprano singing their high register makes comprehension largely impossible. The men lack their bravura and you just don't care about most of these characters which either have to be made interesting or given performances that grab you.

It's clear a lot of thought has gone into the adaptation. The barman in the pub where everything begins on an open-mike talent night is the androgynous god Dionysus: at first you think he's a girl, then turns out to be a very camp young man; later under his Roman name, a womanising Aussie Bacchus (Joseph Morgan) in the sing-along achieves exactly the kind of rapport this whole show needs. The gods are given nationalities with appropriate accents - Matthew Quirk's Jupiter posh old style Imperial British and Myvanwy Bentall's Eurydice would be perfectly at home in Walford's Queen Vic - though, of course, like so many operatic characters, they largely lose their accents the moment they start to sing. An exception is Robert Jeffrey's laid-back Caribbean Mercury: 'A hip, a hop,' he sings. 'Me have a spliff,' but it's nearer recitative than singing.

Lynn Binstock's production may just have been trying to make the whole thing zany - and there is a lovely moment with a shark's fin - but mostly it seemed muddled. Is it really funny to have a dark and dreary looking bar that's dominated by two lavatory doors? Comedy works best in lots of light and the show was given a definite lift in those brief passages when the lamps were turned up.

There's not enough attention to detail to give the action clarity. For instance, if you are going to have someone mime playing billiards, keep the table at the same level through the game and don't let people walk through it, and if you are going to have a guitar-toting folk-singer, surely he'd play it not wait until almost the end of his song before strumming a couple of chords.

It was clear that many others in the audience enjoyed this show more than I did. Opera at close quarters needs more than tunes. In a larger venue, such as its next date, it may prove more effective and perhaps I came with too great expectations. The last show I saw this company do I thought delightful: their version of Rossini's Barber of Seville held me both musically and dramatically and demonstrated effectively that you can create operatic magic with limited resources. But the Barber has a better constructed story than either Offenbach originally used, let alone this one, and interesting characters. It worked much better as a piece of theatre. I hope my next encounter with Unexpected Opera will be more like that one.

At the Warehouse Theatre until 2nd May, then The Scoop at More London 23rd-25th June 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton