The CD cover says it all: a hirsute man dressed as a fly is seducing a comely leggy woman on a divan. Doesn't that make you want to listen to Jacques Offenbach's first successful operetta (1858 version)? The plot alone skewers classical themes. Orpheus and Eurydice quarrel constantly, mostly because she can't stand his fiddle playing. He is relieved when a snake bite spirits her off to the underworld, but Public Opinion forces him to pursue her. More absurd twists ensue, such as the rebellion of the gods on Mount Olympus, the rivalry of Jupiter and Pluto for Eurydice, the pursuit of Eurydice by a Lethe-addled John Styx, and two Bacchanales in the Underworld, both to the tune of the "infernal gallop," popularly known as the can-can.
The music itself is so delicious it is addictive. I don't know how many times I've played the ludicrous fly duet between Eurydice (Dessay) and Jupiter (Naouri). Hearing Dessay's coloratura voice buzzing like a fly is delightfully jarring. John Styx sings a tasty aria about once being king of Boeotia. Its never-changing rhythm and melismas parody eighteenth century love ballads. Dessay is splendid as the spoiled and willful Eurydice, always ready to strain her voice for comic effect. When Orpheus complains to the gods of his stolen Eurydice, he sings a tender quote from Gluck's "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice," which Diana, Cupid, and Venus promptly mock with croaky voices. The "Rondo-Saltarelle" of Mercury is lively and spirited, but the "Aux Armes, dieux et demi-dieux" chorus, in which the gods and demi-gods protest their ambrosia, reveals how well Offenbach could caricature the stirring military choruses of Verdian high opera. Most tasty is the "Rondeau des métamorphoses," in which the gods reproach Jupiter for his many indiscretions and rhythmically jeer him. This music rivals Rossini's in its sheer catchiness. The Choeur & Orchestre de l'Opera National de Lyon performs it superbly, never letting up on its frenetic pace. Even the recitatives – and there are many – breeze by, aided by snatches of indignation, accusation, and general over-the-top acting.
Although Orphée aux Enfers was performed more than 500 times, Offenbach was not satisfied with it. He wrote two other versions. In 1873, he transformed the opéra buffon into an opéra féerie (enchanted opera), nearly doubling its length. The next year he added a ballet. "It would wake the dead, this music," said Francisque Sarcey of the opulent, wild, and whirling dance numbers. As much as I would love to hear these later versions, I don't think a CD release of either is immanent. Perhaps the audience that relished their frenzied waltzes and infernal sarabandes is no longer with us, frozen in the extravagant burlesque of the Second Empire.
Copyright © 1999, Peter Bates
ORPHÉE AUX ENFERS
Eurydice - Natalie Dessay
Orphée - Yann Beuron
Asistée - Pluton - Jean-Paul Fouchecourt
Jupiter - Laurent Naouri
L'Opinion Publique - Martine Olmeda
and other singers
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra National de Lyon
Grenoble Chamber Orchestra
Ballet du Grand-Théâtre de Genève
Marc Minkowski, conductor
Laurent Pelly, stage director
Recorded at the Opéra National de Lyon, December 1997
Picture format: PAL 16:9
Sound format: LPCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish,Italian
Running time: 123 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD-9)
"Minkowski's reading demands adjectives: frenetic, exhilarating, ebullient and brilliant will do for starters"Opera Japonica
This 1997 version of Offenbach's operetta classic serves up a veritable banquet for eyes and ears, with the irrepressible Natalie Dessay in the role of Eurydice and Yann Beuron as Orpheus providing a display of vocal and verbal pyrotechnics.
The viewer is left feeling exhausted by the sheer pace of action, as the production takes ironic sideswipes at morality and immorality. Its exuberant disregard for convention in its choreography, costume and direction - Pluto, for example, arrives on skis from the underworld onto Mt. Olympus - never fails to delight. Laurent Naouri also captivates in the role of Jupiter and, costumed as a fly, demonstrates his vocal and acting talent with Offenbach's "Buzz" aria.
"This music rivals Rossini's in its sheer catchiness. The Choeur & Orchestre de l'Opera National de Lyon performs it superbly, never letting up on its frenetic pace. Even the recitatives - and there are many - breeze by, aided by snatches of indignation, accusation, and general over-the-top acting."www.classical.net
"Dessay's voice is a wonder: crystal clear, devastatingly accurate, and with a remarkable power and flexibility… no hint of strain even at the outer limits"www.bbc.co.uk