It has suddenly become bitterly cold in Oxford, so scuttling the hundred yards or so from where I live to the Sheldonian Theatre, along with having to rush my dinner, saw me in a foul mood at eight o’clock this evening when Ben Holder strode onto stage to conduct New Chamber Opera in Orpheus in the Underworld, Offenbach’s comic operetta in two acts. However, almost from Holder’s first downbeat my temper subsided and I prepared for what was only ever going to be a fantastic evening.

New Chamber Opera performing Orpheus in the Underworld
New Chamber Opera performing Orpheus in the Underworld

The plot of the operetta follows Orpheus’ attempts to rescue his wife, Eurydices (whom he despises), from death at the behest of his mother Calliope, inspiration of poets and composers, so that in the future Christophe Willibald von Gluck might write his opera Orfeo ed Eurydice. Eurydices has been having an affair with the disguised Pluto, ruler of Hades, who tricked Orpheus into killing her with serpents so that she might be trapped in the underworld. The gossip columns on earth are filled with the news that a god has been having a dalliance with a mortal, but that the god is Pluto is not public knowledge, so the other gods assume that Jupiter, their king and patriarch, has been up to his usual tricks in the world of men (and more importantly women). Jupiter feels he must prove that this is not the case to his divine family, who are bored on Mount Olympus and so relish the opportunity for a party, by taking them to Hades, the Las Vegas of the epic world, to confront Pluto. Jupiter, true to form, seduces Eurydices in the form of a golden fly, and as Orpheus leads her away, with the command that if he looks back at her he will lose her forever, Jupiter throws a thong from his pocket (one or two details may have been altered for the modern audience), making him spin around. Eurydices is lost to Orpheus, much to his relief, and goes to Olympus to be with Jupiter, much to their relief, and all ends with a raucous dance: the infernal gallop.

I have seen NCO in action twice, once last year performing The Barber of Seville and again this year performing Orpheus. On both occasions there were belly-laughs aplenty and both sported a stunning cast which excelled itself. NCO draws its performers from Oxford’s student population, so there will never be a Kauffman or Gheorghiu performing, but Oxford’s equivalent was certainly there. Anna Sideris, playing Calliope, shone vocally; her strong and confident tones easily swept over the orchestra which was at moments overpowering for some of the less mature voices. Will Blake’s warm timbre carried well and his ebullient humour kept the energy throbbing through the first act. James Geidt’s Jupiter turned the silly buzzing duet with Julia Sitkovetsky’s Eurydices into a seduction bristling with raw lust, and Sitkovetsky’s own stratospheric cadenzas were a real treat, her hip-swaying portrayal of a Eurydices in control of her own sexuality being a stark contrast to her character’s imprisonment in Hades. I went on the first night and Dominic Bowe as Pluto, understandably, seemed nervous in his spoken passages at the start, but he quickly relaxed and immediately his more mature singing voice and silky speaking voice brought the ‘Lord of Hell’ (as Pluto is keen to be known) to life.

However, if there is one star of the show it has to be the adaptation of the libretto. It is consistently witty and very often downright hilarious. The rhyming couplets that the cast fall into never cease to entertain and their delivery brings out the best in the natural humour, with its puns making you groan and giggle simultaneously. This, combined with the directing of Michael Burden, Oxford University’s professor of Opera Studies, made for an evening of unadulterated entertainment. What could be better than a conga line of the gods and the infernal gallop in swung rhythms? One might say that gold baubles extending from an Alice-band do not a golden fly make, but somehow Burden and Geidt manage to effect a transformation from King of the Gods to fly with that simple prop. The cuts Burden has decided upon are definitely for the good: another autobiography of a god and the production’s momentum would have suffered, one fewer and that portion of the operetta would have seemed random.

When the gods sing in unison, it was perhaps a little louder than lovely, and there were a handful of moments where the ensemble was not as tight as it could have been. For most of the performance the singers are in front of the orchestra so cannot see Holder’s clear beat. This compromise does, however, mean that their voices are clearer over the orchestra.

I cannot emphasise enough how enjoyable this production is. There are one of two moments where it pushes what one expects from an operetta but every gamble turns out to have been worth it. This sometimes farcical story will have you in fits of laughter. New Chamber Opera is the group to beat for youth opera.