Reassessing ‘Orphée aux enfers’ – How the 1973 Théâtre de la Gaïté-Lyrique Production Spotlights Offenbach’s Opera in a Class of its Scandalous OwnBy John Vandevert
Perhaps no other work within the conventional canon of comic opera, of which Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, Webern, and Lehar find their respective places, has achieved so much lasting success as Jacques Offenbach’s two (then four) act opéra bouffon “Orphée aux enfers.”
It was composed between 1855 and 1858 as a humorous reaction to the stuffy court opera aesthetic and hyper-focus on the lofty pursuits of Olympian figures which had filled evenings at the Comédie-Française during Offenbach’s time as its musical director. This opera has come to represent the finest in French light opera and is known the world round as both tawdry and risque, yet wholly entertaining and absolutely infectious. At its premiere in 1858 at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris—incidentally the same year Napoleon III began to push the French empire into a more liberal direction, while simultaneously enforcing stricter penalties on crime due to a failed assignation attempt while on his way to the opera—the jury was split between revilement and approval.
Many theories floated around as to the target audience of the opera’s lewdness and effervescent juvenility. As Richard Taruskin expertly noted, the opera was “the very opposite of social criticism,” and its portrayal of gods and goddesses in frivolous circumstances and ludicrous scenarios was more directed at the drab nature of Comédie-Française’s operatic repertoire. Despite being known primarily for its penultimate scene, the “Galop Infernal” with its extremely exuberant lyricism and instantly recognizable melody, and whose can-can replaced its original staging, “Orphée aux enfers” has never fallen out of our minds, and in the last two years alone has received close to 25 performances worldwide!
The opera that we know and love today is technically the second iteration, having been completed in 1874 and featuring more ballet and spectacle-like scenes, thus transforming the opera from opéra bouffon to what is called opéra féerie, or opera ballet, featuring more magical and performative elements rather than solely singing. Ever since this version’s reveal in 1875 at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique, this second version has seen stages across the globe, with its 20th century French revival beginning in 1902. The Opéra National de Lyon’s 1997 production is one of the most widely watched productions ever online. This opera’s non-Francophile career is where things get interesting, however, as ever since 1859, when its first foreign performance was held in Poland, the opera has achieved great accolades in nearly every corner of the globe, from Austria to Italy to Germany to Slovenia to Japan. But a wander through YouTube revealed one French production that has been all but overlooked, and whose location for its production may pique some interest.
I am talking about the 1973 production held at the Théâtre de la Gaïté-Lyrique, the very same place where, nearly 100 years before, the opera’s now-famous second version premiered. Although a footnote in the opera’s ongoing story, this production is monumental as it metaphorically “brought home” an opera that had circumnavigated the globe. Only one clip of this opera is publicly accessible, and still only Act’s Two, Three, and Four, are available, leaving one to only speculate on what Act One would have sounded and looked like. But amidst the grainy, low-resolution of the video, a riotous and fantastic opera comique time-capsule reveals itself. Ornate costumes with bright colored trims, Apollonian sets mimicking the interior decor of Versailles, and a combination of exaggerated acting and highly curated staging makes this a fantastic example of late-20th century French light opera.
Directed by French actor and composer Louis Ducreux with choreography by Spanish dancer José Ferran, the modern viewer senses the sheer fun that this opera stands for, even in 2022 and after 49 years!
Rococo Meets Camp
Offenbach was not entirely pleased upon the opera’s premiere in 1858. He had wanted lavishness that was beyond the theater’s means at the time. Keep in mind, this opera was almost entirely created as a parody of the excessively groomed and French “spectacle opera” and “rescue opera” traditions as established during the Ancien Régime. In order for the joke of his opera to land, not only was it necessary for the music to be demonstratively tuneful, ornate to a fault, and sickly simplistic yet still maintain a unhurried composure and structural integrity in order to support its rambunctiousness, but the sets and costumes needed to likewise reflect this economic majesticity.
What helped launch the opera to fame, even if it did not quite meet the composer’s expectations, were the published remarks of its first critics. One called the opera a “profanation of holy and glorious antiquity,” heatedly responding to the way Offenbach sardonically poked fun at the previously untouchable myths surrounding Orpheus and Eurydice as vaunted by composers like Monteverdi and Gluck, and the popularity of the opera skyrocketed. Although the music is heavily eclectic and draws from a variety of stylistic “composite rococo” traits, when watching the opera it is really the costumes and staging that give Offenbach’s music the zest of cultish fanaticism that Fritz Lang would subsequently emulate in his dystopic, allegorical film “Metropolis.” The wildness of the costumes is expertly captured in the 1973 Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique staging.
Toying the line between chaos and calm, sampling from Rococo and Rocaille for effect yet never staying put for so long as to become blasé, each of Offenbach’s 25 soloist roles—a huge number for an opera—and chorus are given costumes which exemplify their character’s individual constitution. Jupiter, the king of the gods in Roman mythology, is given a curiously Irish beard and an embellished crimson town coat with gold stars, while Diana, technically the goddess of chastity, is given a sultry black dress with a corset bodice.
The oddities don’t stop there, as the plushiness of the costumes is magnificently immodest, especially prominent in group numbers like the Act Two chorus “Pour séduire Alcmène la fière” (To seduce proud Alcmene), where the gods and goddesses poke fun at Jupiter’s endlessly confusing and hypocritical love life. When you see the costumes all put together, the marvel of this production really begins to unfold. Minerva with her vibrant yellow plumes and shield in the corner, Pluton with his horned top hat and burnt-orange tailcoat jacket, lilac and pastel-colored goddesses draped across the stage, and all sorts of garments, characters, and a panoply of spears filling in the gaps between. Behind them all is a giant side-swept curtain which looms above the tiered stage which adds a transfixing dimensionality to the staging. It really is a feast for the eyes, and the sheer number of scenes, ensembles, and dance numbers give you plenty of time to really enjoy the magnitude of Offenbach’s creative mind.
Regarding set design, Act three opens with a despondent Eurydice reclining on a golden ram’s head Duchesse Brisee, in front of a curtain decorated with a opulently painted door. Following some endearing spoken dialogue another of the most famous moments of the opera occurs, the “Duo de la mouche” (Duet of the Fly) where Jupiter, as a fly, vows to help Eurydice escape, although secretly lusting for her himself. He appears before her dressed in a tailcoat, faux wings, and yellow tights, a parody of precociousness on display.
To my surprise, the parody of Gluck is a lot more obvious than simple thematic references. It extends to the music as well, specifically Gluck’s famous Act three mezzo-soprano aria “Che faro senza Euridice,” from his 1762 opera “Orfeo.” Offenbach’s relationship and allusion to Gluck is a fascinating case of musical referencing, as the tuneful aria is used in a diegetic way rather than as descriptive music underscoring an emotional state that is insinuated but not outwardly stated. One finds these kinds of “insertion aria” moments in operas that are more conversational and light hearted, such as in Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” and Viardot’s “Cendrillon.” Donizetti’s lesser-performed tragedia lirica “Marino Faliero” also utilizes this.
The manner by which this type of technique is employed is ingenious in the opera. In Act two, following the arrival of Orpheus’ at Olympus with L’Opinion Publique—hilariously the name of the French newspaper where much of the opera’s praises and critics were published—he begins to sing this aria to show his feigned devotion to Eurydice. At the conclusion of Act one, exemplifying Offenbach’s uprooting of the traditional modes of the Orpheus and Eurydice mythos, it is revealed that Orpheus doesn’t really care to rescue Eurydice and has to be all but forced to rescue her from the grips of Pluton. With this knowledge, it is laughable how backwards the aria’s place is both narratively and emotionally to the main narrative of the classical tale and Gluck’s opera, as this aria comes after Orpheus makes the error of looking back at Eurydice as they depart the underworld, in the process dooming her to remain there for eternity; though she is eventually saved by Amore, or Cupid.
In Louis Ducreux 1973 production a toga-wearing L’Opinion Publique forcefully states “Obéis-moi!” before Orpheus, who is wearing a rather odd mixture of 14th century leggings and a skirt, with 19th century Russian men’s wear—almost an exact likeness of Lensky from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” top hat and all—begins to sing his aria with a fiddle in his hand. Sung in French as opposed to the typical Italian and with the amorous inclusion of the chorus, this moment in the opera is actually quite a reprieve from the ceaseless energy of the operatic universe. It gives the viewer a chance to breathe in the fresh air of caressing diatonicism, before being thrust back into the fray of Offenbach’s ecstatic score. The musical references to Gluck do not end there. Sourced from Gluck’s first Paris-based opera, 1774’s “Iphigénie en Aulide,” the presence of a piccolo trill and a cymbal tap shows a deeper relationship with Gluck than meets the eye. We enjoy not only a sampled aria, but a parodied narrative and even an instrumental quirk!
Not only is the score riddled with homages and nods to Gluck, but Offenbach tackles issues beyond opera as well. His musical references were more socio-politically-aware than one may think. Although Richard Taruskin notes that the opera served as “a social palliative” to 19th century sensibilities, Offenbach’s reference to “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem banned under the Second Empire and only reinstated in 1879, three years after the opera’s second iteration, gives merit to the fact that this opera was more than pure entertainment or snarky retaliation against staid operatic conventions.
The brief reference to the banned national anthem is used in the Act Two chorus number “Aux armes, dieux et demi-dieux,” and in the 1973 video this moment is rather overshadowed by the spear-wielding group repeatedly exclaiming “Aha!” which reads as incredibly Wagnerian. But it is a fascinating moment as well, because if one compares it to the 2006 Paris Philharmonic recording, the Marseillaise quotation is incredibly reduced almost to the point of inaudibility in 1979, leading one to speculate that its absent position in the musical texture is indicative of something larger. The political climate of early 1970s France was just as fraught as in the 19th century. A spread of Anti-Americanism was sweeping across the country as a result of being caught between the Soviet Union and America, being overlooked for by both the capitalist system in the West and the Communist “utopia” of the East. Francophile confidence in itself was rather abysmal, and this could well have been the reason why the chorus isn’t given the quotation as the original calls for, instead invoking the aesthetic of “Ho jo to ho” as a stand-in.
Considering the decision in 1973 to replace the anthem with something more Wagnerian, it is entertaining to recall Nietzsche’s pronouncement that this opera was categorically antithetical to Wagner’s decadence, instead dedicated to the “great musical tradition.” Though I would disagree somewhat with this assured proclamation, the singing style is indeed lyrical enough to echo Italian bel canto and the acting exaggerated as to invoke commedia dell’arte, but it truly sits in its own category as opera bouffe. In that same chorus number, Offenbach also reference’s Daniel Auber’s “La muette de Portici,” accredited with being the first French grand opera, and Meyerbeer’s “Le prophète” and “Les Huguenots,” two operas which were taken very seriously by audiences for their epic narratives. As Laurence Senelick writes, these emotionally incongruous quotations helped to “level the playing field of French musical hegemony” and revive everyone’s lost sense of fun and play.
No other vaudeville or comic opera has stood the test of time and aesthetic evolution better than Offenbach’s both well-beloved and reviled opera. Bidding the audience to reassess what is sacred and what is profane without having to truly take a side, “Orphée aux enfers” gives us a chance to live effortlessly in the middle of these two and laugh at our own punctiliousness, something most of us need to do a lot more. Ducreux and Ferran’s production is nothing short of a hilarious gibe at the coiffed fashions of 18th century French aristocracy, the stylistically chaste productions of late-Baroque Frenchmen like Lully, Charpentier and Rameau, and the over-the-top antics of German Romantics like Strauss and Wagner.
Although but one production among many over the years, Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique’s 1973 production, with its vaudevillian costume, quasi-pastiche musical score, and well executed dance numbers and multi-tiered choreography, is a real treat to watch. Not only because the performance was held in the same theatre as its premiere a century before, but because each character and presented personality, from the minor players such as Éaque, righteous King of Aegina, and Rhadamante, King of Crete and Son of Jupiter, to the many goddesses and gods, along with the debauched man of the hour Bacchus, all interact with each other and emote in convincing displays of vibrant emotions.
The cast itself is star-studded as well, with French cinematic and operatic stars such as Albert Voli as Orphée, still-active baritone Jean Brun as Jupiter, comic tenor Jean Giraudeau as both Aristée and Pluton, and Anne-Marie Sanial and Eurydice. Another name one may recognize is French mezzo-soprano Simone Couderc as L’Opinion Publique. She is well-known for her dramatic work in roles like Kundry in “Parsifal,” and Aida in “Aida,” but is forever associated with the role of Delilah in “Samson et Delilah.” Outside of a select few, most of the cast appear to have been forgotten, an unfortunate but inevitable truth when it comes to performers and their posthumous legacies. But with the advent of the digital age, this seminal performance will live on and its greatness shall be cherished for quite some time yet.