Orphée aux Enfers in Liège

What are the enduring qualities of Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers which enables it to be performed so successfully in the 21st century? First, there are familiar mythological characters given an unfamiliar slant, beginning with Orpheus and Eurydice detesting each other. Classical virtues and classical vices are parodied to humorous effect. Then the plot, while completely inconsequential, provides opportunities for satirizing political life. Offenbach and his librettists Crémieux and Halévy might have had in mind the French Second Empire when portraying the Gods on Olympus engaging in power struggles, but the contemporary significance of their antics is clear to one and all. The music light, melodic, sometimes wistful, complements a witty libretto. But of course it necessarily finishes with gusto as the can-can makes its long awaited appearance and, when repeated for the umpteenth time, sends the audience home happy.

The production by Claire Servais for the Opéra Royal de Liège Wallonie was true to the spirit of the piece, with zany characterisation, sharp comic play, nicely stylised movement and enough energy to maintain the momentum for nearly three hours. Her efforts to underline the theatrical and political dimensions were not, however, entirely successful. The conceit of setting the beginning of work in the opera house with television cameras following the Public Opinion character was not followed through consistently and turning Olympus into a legislature with the deities making ministerial speeches was somewhat banal. The decors of Dominique Pichou and costumes of Jorge Jara while relatively subdued for the first two acts reached a splendid colourful climax in the final Underworld scene.

Cyril Englebert in the pit offered an idiomatic, lively interpretation and the cast of predominantly young singers, led by Jodie Devos as Eurydice, Papuna Tchuradze as Orphée and Pierre Doyen as Jupiter, contributed to the pleasure of the evening with assured, alert performances that never strayed into coarseness or vulgarity.