“Folies Bergère does Greek gods” is how director Martin Duncan describes Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers, his satirical opéra bouffe which pokes fun at mythology and its traditional dry and dusty treatment on stage. It outraged some critics at its 1858 première, Jules Janin declaring it a "profanation of holy and glorious antiquity"... which only served to draw bigger crowds to the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens! Although Duncan's spicy production for Royal Academy Opera may be short on satire, it's high on camp, providing plenty of chortles and guffaws on opening night.

Hannah Poulsom (Juno), Alexander Aldren (Mercury) and Dominic Bowe (Jupiter) © Robert Workman
Hannah Poulsom (Juno), Alexander Aldren (Mercury) and Dominic Bowe (Jupiter)
© Robert Workman

Orphée is sung in the original French, but with dialogue delivered in Jeremy Sams' sharp English translation, a wise compromise that gave the humour greater immediacy. Offenbach later expanded the work into a four act version in 1874, but the original is preferred here, a zingier confection that races past in under two hours. A couple of numbers from the 1874 score – Eurydice's Couplets des regrets and Mercury's jaunty Rondo saltarelle – are inserted, along with a boisterous account of the famous overture, a pot-pourri of the show's hit tunes ending with the Infernal Galop which was cobbled together by Carl Binder for Vienna in 1860. Gareth Hancock's taut conducting drew an energetic orchestral performance, the score bursting with melodies that threaten to become earworms for weeks.

Mikhail Shepelenko (Orpheus) and Helen Brackenbury (Public Opinion) © Robert Workman
Mikhail Shepelenko (Orpheus) and Helen Brackenbury (Public Opinion)
© Robert Workman

Wedded bliss isn't exactly enjoyed by Orpheus and Eurydice in this topsy-turvy version of the famous legend. Both are enjoying extra-marital affairs, she with the shepherd 'Aristaeus', who turns out to be Pluto in disguise. When Pluto engineers Eurydice's death, bitten by a snake, he sweeps her off to the underworld, where she looks forward to a bit of fun and debauchery. Orpheus is also delighted... but Public Opinion – Helen Brackenbury's handbag-clutching Greek Chorus – marches him off to Mount Olympus to seek justice from the gods. The philandering Jupiter, scenting chance for a bit of action, decides to investigate (and rescue Eurydice for himself) and journeys to Hades, accompanied by all the other gods who fancy a change of scene. Jupiter transforms into a fly to seduce Eurydice, but their plans to elope are foiled in a riotous bacchanale.

Orphée is a great piece for conservatoires to stage, with plenty of individual roles and double casting providing opportunities for many young singers to shine. Welsh soprano Alys Roberts  played the flighty Eurydice with bags of humour and plenty of agility in her top notes, even if her tone was occasionally breathy. Mikhail Shepelenko's Orpheus sang expressively during the performance of his “concerto”, driving Robert's Eurydice to such despair that she takes a pair of shears and snips his strings. William Blake's top notes felt a little dry, but he sang Aristaeus' shepherd song with sincerity, nearly upstaged by the sheep which popped up in unlikely places... including the Hackney Empire's balcony. Down in Hades, Alex Otterburn impressed as the put-upon John Styx, a classy baritone with a lovely quality to his voice in his Song of the King of Boeotia.

Ilona Revolskaya (Diana) and ensemble © Robert Workman
Ilona Revolskaya (Diana) and ensemble
© Robert Workman

Dominic Bowe's Jupiter, sporting a glittery, golden beard, was sung in a firm baritone and he flung himself into the plot's absurdities with abandon, as did Alexander Aldren's Mercury, swallowing consonants but relishing the choreography in his brief number. Up on Mount Olympus, Ilona Revolskaya was the pick of the goddesses, her rich soprano and excellent French diction in Diana's Lament for Acteon making one wish Offenbach had given her a larger role.  

The Chorus enters into the spirit of the show wonderfully, especially in the S&M-inspired orgy leading to the famous Infernal Galop... here a hybrid of the can-can and the conga. With Bacchus dangling his grapes where you'd normally find a fig leaf, it's camper than a row of tents, but I haven't had as much fun at a show for ages.  

****1