One need not be Czech to appreciate and enjoy the National Theaterʼs concluding production of the 2016/17 season, Offenbachʼs Orphée aux enfers. But it certainly helps. In the grand tradition of operetta, the 1858 satire on all that was held holy in French society has been electrified, eroticized, plugged into 21st-century politics and turned loose on everything bugging the Czechs from the new smoking ban to their loopy president. If you can keep up with the riot of references, itʼs a hoot.

Josef Moravec (Orphée) and Jana Sibera (Eurydice) © Hana Smejkalová
Josef Moravec (Orphée) and Jana Sibera (Eurydice)
© Hana Smejkalová

The original was a work born of desperation. With his Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens sinking under the weight of mounting debts, Offenbach pulled out all the stops for Orphée, not only satirizing French manners, politics and art, but using classical mythology to do it, turning the once-untouchable gods into a scheming, hypocritical bunch no better than their bed-hopping human counterparts. More unthinkable, he openly mocked Gluck, whose earlier Orphée et Eurydice was considered a model of proper French opera. The gamble paid off – even many subjects of the satire loved it, including Napoleon III. The production broke box-office records in Paris, and the following year began a successful international tour that included a December date in Prague.

Aside from the lovely arias and several comic set pieces, not much of the original remains in this production, which is set mainly in and around the European Parliament in Brussels, where Orpheus is an MEP. His coquettish wife, Eurydice, happily beds the first man she sees, the Comedian, who thereafter serves as a combination character, narrator and ringmaster in what increasingly looks and feels like a circus. Meanwhile, Eurydice keeps busy sleeping her way to the top – or more accurately, bottom, as her next conquest is Aristeus, a corrupt Czech politician and lecherous hustler who is actually Pluto in disguise. He drugs Eurydice to dispatch her to the underworld, then uses her mobile phone to announce her voluntary suicide (“send all”). 

Jaroslav Březina (Pluton) © Hana Smejkalová
Jaroslav Březina (Pluton)
© Hana Smejkalová

Orpheusʼ initial reaction is delight – now heʼs free to pursue his own affairs. But pressured by Public Opinion, in the guise of a television reporter who threatens to expose his unseemly reaction on social media (“Facebook and Twitter tell all!”), he agrees to ask Jupiter for her return. Recast as the EP President, Jupiter develops his own designs on Eurydice after spying on her in the shower. By then Juno, Diana, Mercury, Cupid, Venus, Minerva and Mars have joined the fray in other updated roles that become increasingly hard to follow. It doesnʼt matter, as the jokes and jibes take center stage.

“We banned Segways!” an MEP fumes when the Comedian rolls in on a unicycle. “Babiš has taken her!” the chorus declares after Eurydice disappears, a reference to the very unpopular Czech Finance Minister. A steady stream of annoying people and issues like Angela Merkel, refugees and the smoking ban in pubs and restaurants emerges from the EP, where the bureaucrats spend all their time posturing and having sex while the MEPs complain about the food. A visit from a Chinese trade delegation provides a witty denouement, as President Ping Pong leaves with much more than he anticipated. 

<i>Orphée aux enfers</i> © Hana Smejkalová
Orphée aux enfers
© Hana Smejkalová

Though not always clear to an outsider, the deeply local references are the most telling. At one point Jupiter holds out his cane like a gun, mimicking a recent photo of Czech President Miloš Zeman apparently threatening an opposition minister. The audience reacted with a mixture of cheers and boos accurately mirroring the Presidentʼs current popularity. And in a discussion of infidelity, the line “Who doesnʼt cheat isnʼt a Czech” drew one of the biggest laughs of the evening. 

If the content is often obscure, the form of this Orphée is familiar and smart, a lively and inventive piece of musical theater created by the brothers Michal and Šimon Caban, who have done everything from straight opera to television specials and award galas. Superb direction, great sets and a gift for staging elaborate song-and-dance numbers make for a rousing eveningʼs entertainment, especially when the famous can-can music kicks in.

Jana Sibera (Eurydice) © Hana Smejkalová
Jana Sibera (Eurydice)
© Hana Smejkalová

Jana Sibera stole the opening night show as Eurydice, vamping her way through the role with adorable guile and brilliant coloratura. Peter Strenáčik put on a one-man show as the Comedian, acting, singing, stilt-walking, juggling (once with fire) and literally running circles around the rest of the cast on his unicycle. Even conductor Jan Chalupecký got in on the action, breaking occasionally from a fine musical performance to contribute a line or comedic gesture.

Who knew the trip to hell and back could be so much fun?