Orpheus in the Underworld
by Jacques Offenbach
English adaptation by Kelley Rourke
Directed by Rick Davis and Joel Lazar
Music Director and Orchestra Conductor Joel Lazar
Produced by The In Series
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
How do you escape the cold? Climb Mt. Olympus and let The In Series send you to Hell. Orpheus in the Underworld at The Atlas Performing Arts Center is the best trip you’ll take all winter. Let well-trained, beautiful voices that need no microphones steam up your opera glasses. If this is Hell, you want to go there.
You may already know Ovid’s story. Orpheus, the Greco/Roman god of musicians, defies the gods and looks back at Eurydice as he leads her out of Hell. Eurydice falls dead in her lover’s arms; Orpheus’ chronic mourning incites a band of Thracian women to tear him to bits. In Christoph Gluck’s tamer 18th century Italian opera, Eurydice is resurrected for a happier ending. Most versions, however, like Balanchine’s ballet set to Stravinsky, are tragic. But directed by Rick Davis and Joel Lazar, this production of Jacques Offenbach’s 1856 spoof turns on the satire and allows just the right flow of heroic mockery. Seductive Jupiter changes into a fly to seduce Eurydice. Cancan girls kick up a storm- and that’s just two of the highpoints of this genuinely enjoyable, exuberant evening.
Librettist Kelley Rourke transcribes into English an inspired libretto, by combining Offenbach’s 1858 musical parody, Orpheus in the Underworld, with selected numbers from his 1874 update. But Rourke adds her own topping with topical jabs at modern politicos. In this present day setting, Orpheus and Eurydice are a modern day celebrity couple, married too long.
Philip Bender, drawing a bow across the strings of a violin, (supported by a violinist from the orchestra) brings a debonair but disdainful grace and strong tenor voice to Orpheus, an art-obsessed music professor who chases his female students and cheats on his wife.
Randa Rouweyha, whose coloratura soprano has impressive range, brings the neglected-wife Eurydice, down-to-earth, as she takes center stage for some anguished emoting. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed a change in your vibrato when a certain student comes around,” she laments. And no wonder. When Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld, lightheartedly sung by Richard Novak, kidnaps Eurydice and heads for Hell, Orpheus kicks up his heels in delight. But never fear, Eurydice is no puritanical angel. She’s been hanging out at trendy coffee shops with Pluto, disguised as “a hippie,” the barista and beekeeper Aristeus. Hovering over all this frivolity, morally vigilant Public Opinion, sung with ringing authority by Grace Gori, orders Orpheus to the Elysian Fields (or Heaven), to demand that Jupiter return Eurydice to keep up appearances. Meanwhile, on Mt. Olympus the gods are lounging around Corporate Headquarters, text messaging each other on their cell phones, gossiping about Pluto’s scandalous abduction.
Baritone Bryan Jackson is perfectly cast as Jupiter, who with that wonderfully lush, thunderbolt baritone voice galvanizes the gods. In Heaven, Jupiter is a temporarily reformed god who requires that his bored and restless gods and goddesses practice character building exercises. But there’s dissension. Juno in a mink coat (Jennifer Suess) is aroused with jealousy and sings gloriously in fire-filled rage at Jupiter; and Venus (Daniele Lorio), Diana (Laura Lewis) with Cupid (Serena Canino) and Bacchus (Scott Kenison) start a riot, stirring rebellion among the younger gods in the “Revolutionary Chorus.” All it takes is Orpheus entering with Public Opinion from a side aisle demanding Eurydice’s return and all rapturously sing, “Let us go to Hell” as the ensemble descends into the aisles.
Act II takes us to Eurydice’s room in the Hell’s Hotel Underworld. Forget the Parisian ennui with morality of the 1850s. Rourke’s libretto goes after today’s politicians. Eurydice is guarded by John Styx, portrayed by Richard Tappen, who sings “I’m a maverick politician. I led the charge for change……Read my lips. I’m feeling your pain,” a refreshing aria that’s a combo of sound bites from present-day presidents.
But what’s really delicious is the take-off on Gluck’s “Dance of the Furies,” reduced to the interlocking melodic imitation of a fly buzzing around Eurydice. The vocal blend of Brian Jackson and Rouweyha let the “Fly Duet” unfold like a resplendent rose until there you have Jupiter metamorphosed into a fly seducing Eurydice with his voice. Brian Jackson delivers Jupiter’s melody like a delirious snake, infatuated to the point of delirium. As they sing a charming, contrapuntal duet, Jackson’s whole body undulates as Jupiter buzzes in Eurydice’s ear and allows her to capture an imaginary fly in her hands. Jackson doesn’t just sing; he acts out the inebriated fly weaving and buzzing around Eurydice. It’s funny to watch and pleasurable to hear.
If you listen closely to Joel Lazar’s well-modulated conducting of the 13-piece chamber orchestra, throughout both acts, divided into four Tableaus, you catch echoes of the infectious musical phrases building to the tumultuous “cancan” finale in Club Underworld. Thanks to choreographer Susan Shields, you have to clap along (even scream a little) as four dancers in black dresses and flashy red undergarments fill the stage with kicks, splits and the energy of a 50-person chorus line. Kick up your heels; scream with joy. Live and let live. Life is fun. Hell is a celebration of life.
Don’t sit up too close. You want a panoramic view, especially of Osbel Sussman-Pena’s minimalist, five-screen set design, backed by Marianne Meadows’ subtle lighting changes with glints of blood red glows. Never has going to Hell been so much fun.
Running Time: 1:50
When: Only 2 shows left: Sat, Jan. 24, at 8:00 p.m.; Sun, Jan. 25th, 3 p.m.
Where: Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20002. (Union Station-closest Metro-Red Line). Free shuttle service available from Union Station on Saturday only. Call on same day: 1-301-751-1802. Valet parking available at ATLAS. Also, street parking.
Tickets: General admission: $39; Seniors: $36; Students: $18 (w/ID) and youth (under 18).
Info and Reservations: Call 202-204-7763, or visit the website.