When one thinks of the operas that would be well-suited for a children’s production, Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld is not the first work that springs to mind. The satirical work, most often performed in its four-scene version from 1858 that brought fame to the composer and laid the groundwork for a new musical style, deals with a dysfunctional marriage, a philandering upper class, and bacchanalian revelry – all of it layered with social and political criticism and sophisticated musical references. Yet Oper Köln's performance of the work, tailored for children seven and older, proved that Orpheus can be made accessible to young audiences while still being clever enough for adults and not sacrificing the work’s humor and musical integrity. Orpheus captured the entire audience through its tight and engaging drama, superb ensemble cohesion, convincing comic acting and first class singing, not to mention its pleasing visual consistency through design elements.

Maria Isabel Segarra (Eurydice) and Matthias Hoffmann (Aristeus/Pluto) © Matthias Jung
Maria Isabel Segarra (Eurydice) and Matthias Hoffmann (Aristeus/Pluto)
© Matthias Jung

In one of the cavernous black halls of the Staatenhaus, the scenic design team lead by Brigitta Gillessen created an intimate and surprisingly versatile setting that easily brought the audience into the production itself. Viewers sat on either side of a V-shaped stage placed between a chamber section from the Gürzenich Orchestra elevated atop a broad rear platform and a television crowning the V’s point. Elisabeth Vogetseder’s garish sparkly grey-pink curtaining and the reoccurring chequered blazers and pants also helped squarely place the action in the 1950s, which fit the themes of Eurydice as a repressed housewife and Mount Olympus' gods as an upper-middle class bored by its mores.

Dino Lüthy (Orpheus) © Matthias Jung
Dino Lüthy (Orpheus)
© Matthias Jung

The opening confrontation between a frustrated Eurydice, wonderfully sung by Maria Isabel Segarra with a fluid, agile and pleasantly-penetrant voice, and her violin-playing husband Orpheus, the superbly comic Dino Lüthy who added the right touch of ridiculousness to his round-toned and soothing tenor voice by tossing his curly locks, set a high opening bar that the rest of the cast only raised. These two, as most of the rest of the cast, were members of the opera’s international studio for young professionals; an exception was Matthias Hoffmann, who as Aristeus/Pluto exuded a devious ease that was natural both vocally and physically. Particularly he and Segarra would reach the furthest rows of a mainstage house with their readable but unaffected gestures and resonant sound. Judith Thielsen gave a solid performance as Juno, singing and smooching her way through the kissing aria in the final act with an expressive fervour and musical clarity that made one wish more could have been heard from her. Yunus Schahinger sang a likeable Jupiter while Hoeup Choi as Mercury delighted with a sweet timbre and appropriately fleet feet that he put to use with a cartwheel in the “Galop Infernal”, the operetta’s most famous passage commonly known as the “Can-Can”, where Athol Farmer’s clever choreography saved them from petering out by having them lie on their backs and kick in the air.

Maria Isabel Segarra (Eurydice) and Yunus Schahinger (Jupiter) © Matthias Jung
Maria Isabel Segarra (Eurydice) and Yunus Schahinger (Jupiter)
© Matthias Jung

The decision to match another return of the famous chorus with a flurry of arms pounding on the chest of a passed-out Styx (a humorous Alexander Fedin in a washed-up, Liberace-style getup) was well-motivated comic brilliance. The orchestra, conducted by Rainer Mühlbach, kept the tempo upbeat but steady, and while the score sometimes lacked the wild debauchery that scandalized many 19th-century audiences, the touch of restraint kept the orchestra from over-powering the small cast in the large space. Uwe Sochaczewsky's adaptation never felt thin and had stand-out moments of colour, particularly through the use of muted brass and decorative piccolo. More could have been made of the musical quotations of Offenbach’s predecessor – Gluck’s revered Orpheus – through greater exaggerated of the plaintive sound, but the singer-conductor interaction in calling up the “Che faro” melody nodded in acknowledgement to the connoisseurs in the audience.

Director Elena Tzavara’s text setting was snappy and rapidly-paced, making the roughly hour-long work move steadily without feeling rushed. It delighted the schoolchildren by allowing numerous opportunities for audience interaction, which they wholeheartedly took up, without ever losing the critical humour that originally took aim at Offenbach’s contemporaries in the Second French Empire. The production lampooned haute couture fashion, “fake news” and – of course – the typically moralizing presence of Public Opinion, slickly spoken by Ralph Caspars. In a twist fitting to the current debates on the power balances between men and women, Eurydice rejected the final options proposed for her by the male protagonists, announcing her own agency and being subsequently rewarded for this with her own TV talk show. 

****1