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Performances

Emily Vine
01 Feb 2016

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Emily Vine (Eurydice)

 

The company continues its laudable dual mission to facilitate the burgeoning careers of recently graduated young singers and to resurrect the frivolous blend of the grotesque and the erotic, the preposterous and the satirical, which characterises the world of operetta. But, the imposing elegance of St John’s, with its corner towers, monumental pediments and lofty spacious interior — scarlet curtain, dark timber gallery, giant white Corinthian columns and barrel-vaulted roof — made an odd backdrop for this madcap, and at times maniacal, journey with Orpheus and the amoral Olympian deities to the Underworld, courtesy of Simon Butteriss’s adaptation of Offenbach’s opera bouffe.

The tale was swiftly told and the major numbers preserved, with several of the operetta’s ‘supplementary numbers’ included in the final Act — Styx’s ‘I was a King’, the ‘Fly Duet’ for Eurydice and Jupiter, and the final ‘Hymn to Bacchus’ for Eurydice and the Chorus — presumably to allow further opportunity for comic excess. At times, though, the burlesque veered dangerously close to pantomime farce. Offenbach’s satire is a sophisticated parody on a revered Classical legend — a myth which lies at the heart of the ‘birth of opera’ itself. A domestic squabble between disenchanted lovers, the vulgar Eurydice and boorish Orpheus, results in the latter reluctantly (coerced by Public Opinion) heading down to Hades to seek out his wife who has run off with the shepherd Aristaeus (the disguised, lecherous Pluto). This barbed ridicule combines with sharp mockery of the wooden performances of Classical drama at the Comédie-Française in Offenbach’s contemporary Paris, and biting critique of the social and political scandals of the Second French Empire. It’s a work which needs charm and elegance to counter the buffoonery, qualities which Butteriss and movement director Lauren Zolezzi rather overlooked in favour of zany horseplay.

william_morgan_1196406.pngWilliam Morgan (Orpheus) [Photo by Laurent Compagnon]

Butteriss wore many hats in preparing and performing this production: in addition to directing the young cast, he penned the expeditious spoken dialogue, adapted some of the lyrics (J.R. Planché’s translation was used), served as a smooth-tongued narrator, sang the role of Jupiter with stylish verve, and imitated a bluebottle. An experienced ‘man of the theatre’ — director, translator, actor and presenter, singer — he was a relaxed and debonair presence amid the comic antics, swapping evening-dress for silk dressing-gown, then sporting black tights and outsized visor to impersonate a buzzing insect. Occasionally Butteriss strayed a bit too close to the camp territory of Kenneth Williams or John Inman, but he judiciously held back; a wicked sense of fun was tempered by the wisdom of experience.

Among the cast, sopranos Emily Vine and Hannah Sawle stood out. As a soubrettish Eurydice, Vine span a beautiful line and had no trouble hitting the highs, while looking equally classy in Greek tunic and sparkling evening gown. Sawle sang with impressive focus and bright tone, as the categorically unchaste Diana, and was a strong presence in the ensembles. William Morgan proved that his fingers are as nimble as his vocal chords, giving a creditable — if rather hasty — rendition of the overture’s renowned violin solo; despite his musical acrobatics — he twirled impetuously around the haughty Eurydice and slid along the floor on his back, with no obvious negative effect on intonation or finger-work — Orpheus was unable to impress his indifferent wife. But, the multi-tasking — and the overly boisterous characterisation — did somewhat diminish the refinement of his vocal delivery.

Mezzo-soprano Kathy Steffan quietened the agitation as a prim Juno and the pompous Public Opinion, and revealed a wide vocal range and sure intonation. As John Styx, attired in a fluffy, grey onesie — a sort of one-headed Cerberus in a jumpsuit — Matthew Buswell demonstrated richness and variety of tone but his tuning was less secure. Tenor Tristan Stocks gambolled manically as Mercury, but couldn’t quite get his tongue around the rapid patter of his aria. In contrast, Jan Capinski’s diction was excellent; he was a stentorian Pluto/Aristaeus and a persuasive stage presence, particularly in the ensembles, where there was not a hint of the uncertainty about the text which seemed to afflict one or two of his colleagues on occasion. Felicity Buckland completed the cast as a charming Cupid.

Conductor Oliver Gooch led the excellent Orpheus Sinfonia. There was much sensitive string playing and clarinettists Rosemary Taylor and Joseph Shiner added a smooth suavity, a soothing counterpart to the hectic activity on stage (which was deftly choreographed by Zolezzi). The energetic contribution of percussionist Timothy Evans did much to swell the sound, adding excitement and verve at the climactic moments. Gooch swept proceedings along and took the singers with him, although at times the tempo seemed to run away with itself — the ‘Can Can’ went at such a lick that the cast struggled to deliver their high kicks.

Opera Danube’s ambitions are certainly praiseworthy, and artistic director Andrew Dickinson, who welcomed us to this matinee performance, deserves commendation for his aim to ‘showcase’ the work of gifted young professionals through performances of operettas which have the ‘fizz and exuberant quality … so suited to the ambition of emerging talent’. All the more so because it’s all done on a shoe-string. This was a performance of irrepressible vivacity and jollity; just the thing for a Sunday afternoon in dreary January, even if the froth and bubbles did overflow.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Orpheus: William Morgan, Eurydice: Emily Vine, Public Opinion/Juno: Kathy Steffan, Pluto/Aristaeus: Jan Capinski, Diana: Hannah Sawle, Cupid: Felicity Buckland, Mercury: Tristan Stocks, Mars/John Styx: Matthew Buswell; Director/Narrator: Simon Butteriss; Conductor: Oliver Gooch, Lauren Zolezzi: Choreographer, Orpheus Sinfonia. St John’s Smith Square, London, Sunday 31st January 2016.

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