Opera: something to be revered and attached with a stigma that it is only for a certain crowd. The English National Opera is trying to remove that stigma and make opera accessible for all and it goes a long way toward that with its production of Orpheus in the Underworld. Directed and co-adapted by Emma Rice, previously the artistic director at The Globe, the classic Greek myth is transported to the 1950s.
The initial set up of Eurydice and Orpheus’ relationship is an addition by Rice, and done through Offenbach’s beautiful overture. This set up helps to rationalise some of Eurydice’s later actions and create more empathy with these characters, as we see Eurydice go through a stillbirth, shaking her mental health and her marriage.
Following this, Act I takes a while to kick start, with the concept of a shepherd being in 1950s London seeming a bit absurd. Grasping the angle Rice is going for takes time, but as we enter into Act II at Mount Olympus, we see her conception fully come to life. Lizzie Clachan’s lido like set and Lez Brotherston’s extravagant costumes bolster the incredible performances from the ensemble playing the various Gods and the clouds. From there on in, we see Rice and Tom Morris’ witty adaptation come into play through both the dialogue and lyrics, with the free adaptation helping to modernise the piece and bring in comedic elements. Asides from the cast like ‘How am I doing’, curse words and comments on the fact that the way the male gods are behaving towards Eurydice is non-consensual help to rejuvenate the story and make it relatable to a modern day audience.
After the interval, we enter into Act III and Act IV which are set in hell, and Rice cleverly changes this setting to be that of a Peep Show. This makes the actions of the male gods even more seedy, and allows for brilliant characterisation by Alan Oke of John Styx. Furthermore, Rice’s interpretation of the scenes in Act III with Eurydice and Jupiter as the fly are cleverly done and make them a lot more understandable and comedic as we lead into the party scenes.
Act IV is once again, incredible. Any scene that has the ensemble incorporated is truly outstanding, but unfortunately as we head towards the denouement not even Emma Rice can make the Eurydice’s ending less unsettling. Rice has said that she tried to adapt the story in a post #MeToo movement, but the ending still did not feel like it hit the nail on the head. The gravitas of Eurydice being sold to Bacchus does not feel like it is given enough weight, along with Orpheus’ reaction to their separation. It is hard to think of how best this could be done for a modern day audience, but it feels like this is too quickly skipped over with another rendition of the amazing (and famous) can-can.
ENO is definitely making waves in the opera world, with this production being easily understandable and relatable to all audiences. Orpheus in the Underworld is great fun, whilst being witty and well sung. ENO’s different schemes, such as their Access All Arias scheme – which offers reductions on seats for those between 16-29 years old from as low as £10 – means a return visit is definitely on the cards, particularly as they are putting on Madame Butterfly and Carmen next year.