Orpheus in the Underworld

Gavan Ring in 'Orpheus in the Underworld'. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Gavan Ring in 'Orpheus in the Underworld'. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Jane Harrington and Nicholas Sharratt in 'Orpheus in the Underworld'. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Jane Harrington and Nicholas Sharratt in 'Orpheus in the Underworld'. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Most of the pre-publicity for Orpheus in the Underworld, the first production of Northern Ireland Opera’s first full season, focused on the new libretto the company had commissioned from comedian Rory Bremner. It was an astute investment, as much of the comedy in Offenbach’s 1858 operetta centres on in-jokes aimed at the Second Empire establishment in the French capital, references entirely lost nowadays on all but well-read history graduates.

Bremner certainly blows away the historical cobwebs from Offenbach’s original, peppering the new libretto with references to contemporary media, social networking and sundry political shenanigans. He also gives an operatic debut to the word “cervix”, and has one character start an aria by singing “Get your ass over here!”, a line I doubt has ever been heard on the stage of the Paris Opéra.

Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken WanAnd then there’s the sex. Lots and lots of it. Most of the characters are seriously over-imbued libidinally, and Bremner laces the book with liberal amounts of tasty dialogue, some of which is not so much close to the bone as already sawing enthusiastically through it. The risqué wordplay is largely justified, as is most of the saucy stage action devised to match it by director Oliver Mears, though what Jupiter does to Eurydice with his wings, while masquerading as a fly to seduce her, requires a pretty high unshockability threshold to stomach.

Mears plays Orpheus as a zippy, fast-moving satire on contemporary mores, exactly Offenbach’s conception in the 1858 Parisian original. He’s excellent at creating sharply distinctive identities for characters, and strikes an adept balance between giving them too much comic business to attend to, and too little. He has also cast the operetta very astutely: a singer who isn’t also a gifted comic actor sinks miserably in this kind of multi-tasking environment, but all of the Orpheus protagonists are confidently at home in the rapid musical slapstick that is the lingua franca of this production.

Spearheading the action are two Irish baritones, Brendan Collins and Gavan Ring, both of whom give hugely energetic, highly accomplished performances. Collins, as the serial philanderer Jupiter, has an impressive range of facial grimaces and slick dramatic timing to complement his firm, commanding account of the vocal part. Ring’s Pluto is a blusteringly over-the-top impersonation, oozing testerone and bestriding the stage like a young stag in rutting season. He too sings with splendid authority.

The object of his lustful attentions is Eurydice, played by soprano Jane Harrington as a kittenish celebrity housewife, whose itch for Aristaeus (Pluto in terrestrial disguise) she is only too keen for him to keep scratching. Oddly, while she speaks in slatternly estuary English, she sings in the operatic equivalent of received pronunciation, creating a curiously bifurcated impression. Harrington’s bursts of coloratura appear to emanate unstoppably from her teasing, minx-like personality, and she pings out high notes as a warning that beyond the skittish posturing she’s a sharp, calculating operator not to be messed with. Her composer husband Orpheus is, by contrast, all foppishness and fey self-absorption, and is mellifluously sung and winningly acted by tenor Nicholas Sharratt.

Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken WanThe other stand-out performance of the evening is that of Dublin mezzo-soprano Máire Flavin in the role of Public Opinion. It’s a formidably school-marmish piece of character acting: during the overture she scurries hyperactively around the theatre searching for the stage entrance, imperiously regaling the audience in her role as iron-girdled guardian of civic decency and decorum. Think Margaret Thatcher on a caffeine rush, and you’ve got it. It’s mainly a speaking part, but Flavin unleashes a ripe, powerful stream of mezzo tone when the opportunity presents itself.

A series of tear-off backdrops, apeing sensationalist tabloid headlines, provides the scenic settings, emphasising the trashy, disposable nature of the characters’ values and motivations. Simon Holdsworth, who designed the sets, dresses the cast in ways which neatly stereotype the personas Bremner re-invented for them: Orpheus the besuited aesthete, Eurydice all bling and mini-dresses, Pluto a garishly shell-suited personal trainer.

Conductor Derek Clark elicited a lively, musically incisive account of Tony Burke’s reduced score from the ten players in the orchestra. But it is ultimately the unifying vision of director Oliver Mears which matters most in getting this bold re-imagining of Orpheus to gel theatrically. Faced with a daunting brief to expand audiences, tour more, and make productions popular and accessible, he’s created for Northern Ireland Opera a show that’s full of fizz, contemporary relevance and belly laughter, without cheapening the core artistic values the company will need to build on as it develops further into the future.

Terry Blain is an arts journalist and cultural commentator, contributing regularly to BBC Music Magazine, Opera Britannia, Culture Northern Ireland and other publications.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, in a new translation by Rory Bremner

27 Oct – 4 Nov, 2011; on tour.

Produced by Northern Ireland Opera and Scottish Opera
In Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey

Director: Oliver Mears

Conductor: Derek Clark

Movement director: Anna Morrissey

Set and Costume Design: Simon Holdsworth

Lighting Design: Kevin Treacy

With: Nicholas Sharratt, Jane Harrington, Máire Flavin, Ross McInroy, Brendan Collins, Daire Halpin, Gavan Ring, Marie Claire Breen, Olivia Ray, Christopher Diffey.

Following the Northern Ireland tour, the production runs at the Young Vic London from 30 Nov - 10 Dec, 2011.