Coproduction with Komische Oper Berlin
and Deutsche Oper am Rhein
‘Orpheus, you have the soul of a common fiddler!’ — ‘Wife, your verdict is very harsh.’
Paris 1858. With the Bouffes-Parisiens, his small theatre off the Champs-Élysées, Offenbach had got into financial difficulties. He adored excess, as exemplified in the court of the Second Empire under Napoléon III with its nouveau-riche extravagance. With the outlay for scenery and costumes for his opérette-bouffe Mesdames de la Halle he had overreached himself and been forced to go into hiding to avoid the bailiffs. Only a resounding success could rescue the almost forty-year-old composer from his plight. An Orpheus libretto by Ludovic Halévy and Hector Crémieux was already to hand and merely needed revising. Set to music by Offenbach, Orphée aux enfers was to become the prototype of the ‘Offenbachiade’, the epitome of operetta and at the same time the composer’s lifeline.
In the event, however, the premiere was a disappointment. While not an outright fiasco, it was no triumph either. It was not until a damning review by leading Parisian critic Jules Janin appeared six weeks after the premiere that the situation changed. This unleashed a public dispute about Offenbach’s heinous act of ‘dragging Olympus through the dirt’, in a ‘frenzy of irreverence’ (Émile Zola).
But had not parodies of classical antiquity already long been fashionable by this time? Was that really what had triggered this wave of indignation? What was being sent up was not the gods and demigods of the ancient world but the charade of the dictatorship of Napoléon III and the bourgeois society of the Second Empire ‘who had drunk from the waters of Lethe in order not to be constantly reminded of their origins’. Orphée aux enfers mocks ‘the tumult that strains for effect, denounces Potemkin villages’ and the ‘ostentation of the Empire’, behind which the urge ‘to satiate the senses’ (Siegfried Kracauer) can be indulged in.
The pendulum eventually swung towards Offenbach: the success of his ‘daring travesty of ancient myth’ (Volker Klotz) pulled in the crowds, and after the eightieth performance it proved almost impossible to deal with the demand. The series of performances had to be interrupted after the 228th show as the singers were exhausted.
Orphée aux enfers also came to the impresario’s rescue a second time: after the Republic was proclaimed in 1870 the Offenbachiade had lost its attraction and its creator had little success with the Théâtre de la Gaîté. So Offenbach went back to work on Orphée, turning the two acts and four scenes of the opéra-bouffon into four acts and twelve scenes and calling his new version an ‘opéraféerie’. Although he brought the libretto up to date by including digs at republican institutions and corrupt law courts, he also took his audience into a fairy-tale world that chimed with contemporary taste, enchanting his audience with the sets and costumes as well as the use of ingenious theatre machinery. Financial success ensued once more.
Barrie Kosky’s production for the Salzburg Festival essentially keeps to the form of the two-act opérabouffon from 1858, with the addition of one or two ideas from the 1874 version.
Eurydice, the central figure, hates music, as personified by her husband. And Orpheus himself is nothing more than an insignificant, undistinguished music teacher from Thebes; the divine seducer Aristaeus is a play-acting honey-monger; and Jupiter, the ‘father of the gods’, a dirty old man constantly on the pull. Offenbach’s mockery of bourgeois ideals, the sublimity of music and the institution of marriage ensures that the moralistic sermonizing of ‘Public Opinion’ falls on deaf ears.
The mysterious figure of John Styx tells the story of behind-the-times Orpheus and his hacked-off Eurydice, of gods and goddesses seeking diversion, jaded with humdrum life in Olympus. He tells of the rebellion in the pantheon, which Jupiter adeptly averts by promising an amusement for his entourage. Burning with curiosity to see the beauteous captive and the contest between Jupiter and Pluto for Eurydice’s favour, the illustrious company embarks on an infernal ride to the underworld that culminates in what is surely the most wellknown can-can in the history of music. And what of Eurydice? She ends up putting a spoke in everyone’s wheel…
Translation: Sophie Kidd