If anyone tells you that all opera is highbrow, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld provides you with a perfect example of the opposite. It's coarse, raunchy, fast, fun, and continually pokes fun at the conventions of grand opera. You can get the idea from the plot: Orpheus is bored with Eurydice and delighted when Pluto carries her off to hell, but Public Opinion forces him to plead with the gods for permission to go and fetch her; the gods are bored sick with Nectar, Ambrosia and the sunless mists of Olympus, so it's a great excuse to all go down to Hell for a jolly good party.

Chris Christodolou
Chris Christodolou

It's pretty basic stuff, but in the hands of the Royal College of Music's International Opera School and director Liam Steel, it was riotously funny. The most impressive thing was the movement and stagecraft, with many outstanding moments. Each act started with a pair of lovers excuting some great (and naughty) choreography, and when the gods are bored in Olympus (lazing around in tanning beds and health-spa style bathrobes), there was a wonderful series of collective heaves and sighs as they relapse from brief moments of excitement into their torpor. The individual acting was great, most notably David Milner-Pearce's Yorkshire-accented Elvis-clad pomposity as Jupiter, David Webb's King of Cool performance as Pluto and Susanna Hurrell's Eurydice as Desperate Housewife. Most fun, perhaps, was Rosie Aldridge doing a passable impression of Dame Edna Everage (without the accent) in the role of Public Opinion.

Some of the staging was quite superb, with really clever sets. The opening setting of bedrooms in the "Hotel Flagrante" was neatly attuned to the raunchy material, and much fun was provided from a recurring gag of the hotel lift from which odd characters emerge (as well as, in the last act, the locked chest into which they disappear). The image of the shepherd Aristaeus (Pluto in disguise) surrounded by his flock of sheep (woolly tights, ski hats and pretty curls all around, including, alarmingly, one male sheep) will stay in my mind with hideous merriment for a long time. And of course, the showstopping dance numbers at the end of each act were brilliantly executed, ending with the famous Grand Galop, the dance immortalised in popular culture (not entirely authentically) as the "Can-Can".

I was less convinced by the singing. It's partly down to Offenbach's score: it's light, merry and enjoyable, but there's not that much in the way of exciting vocal lines for a star singer to get their teeth into. In a way, it makes Orpheus an odd choice for an opera school production: everyone has fun and it's a great ensemble piece, but it doesn't really provide a showcase for the RCM's top singers. [update: see comments from RCM below] The arias that I enjoyed most were from minor characters: Martha Jones sung beautifully as Cupid returning to Olympus from an amorous jaunt down to earth, and the best aria of the evening was Edward Grint as the idiot gaoler John Styx: he sang When I was King of Boeotia with grace and warmth, and the tune has stuck firmly in my head despite the fact this was the first time I've heard it. Susanna Hurrell showed off some good coloratura skills to complement her great acting, but the music for Eurydice is too disjointed for me to know whether or not I was listening to a really special voice.

But then, Orphée aux Enfers was never supposed to be about appealing to the highbrow opera audience there to see their vocal superstars. Quite the opposite, in fact: it was a merciless send-up of the Grand Opera genre (and Gluck's Orfeo in particular). In this production, the RCM have done it full justice, and left the audience brimming with the sheer fun of it all.



Update from John Fosbrook at RCM: The operas are chosen not as showcase vehicles for our star performers, but to give as wide a variety of experiences as possible to all the singers in the opera school. Over the course of their 2-year stint they will have to sing in a variety of languages, and in operas from very different periods – some that are very showy for soloists, and some that are ensemble numbers. The aim is to provide a broad and comprehensive training so that all our singers are ready for whatever is thrown at them in the professional world. So the choice of Orpheus makes very good sense indeed within that overall programme of study. (The next opera is Cosi fan Tutte, which of course gives them more of a chance to shine as individuals!)

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