Live from Aix 2009: Orpheus in the Underworld

Live from Aix 2009: <i>Orpheus in the Underworld</i>

This article is the second in a series of three pieces on the 2009 Aix festival. Read the other two pieces in our Culture section.

From Olivier Py’s grim Grand Guignol version of Mozart’s Idomeneo on Saturday to the high-spirited hijinks of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld on Sunday night, ancient Greco-Roman myths and legends are getting a thorough going-over at the Aix festival this year.

First performed in 1858, Offenbach’s operetta is a full-fledged farce that turns the tale of Orpheus upside down. Instead of rushing into Hades to rescue his beloved wife Eurydice, abducted by Pluto, this Orpheus is a pompous second-string violinist who would be only too happy to leave his flirting, unfaithful spouse right where she is in netherland, but is forced into action by Public Opinion. In depicting Jupiter and his fellow Olympian gods and goddesses as bored stiffs delighted to set off en masse in search of Eurydice and a little hellish fun, Offenbach was taking direct comic aim at Napoleon III and his coterie of Second Empire socialites.

With a colorful melange of costumes by Patrice Cauchetier and ingenious sets by Damien Caille-Perret, director Yves Beaunesne turns the symbolic character of Public Opinion into a 1940s gossip reporter armed with notebook, Speed Graphic flash camera and a passing resemblance to Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. Pluto is a sleazy night-club-style Satan on roller skates, Cupid a chubby Parisian street urchin, Venus a Hollywood glamour queen, Juno a paragon of jealousy in an emerald green gown. Mercury pedals around on a bike with winged training wheels, and Pluto’s assistant John Styx lurches around lasciviously, drinking the waters of the Lethe to forget which pop star he might have been in earthly life. Eurydice is a sexy little soubrette in a lacy satin slip, and when Jupiter morphs into a fly to seduce her, he sports an aviator helmet, goggles and opalescent wings over his bright red sports coat. How else could it all end but in a raucous, galloping, everybody-up-on-the-banquet-table can-can?

Although there are a few standout performances, notably by Aix-born soprano Pauline Courtin as Eurydice and Mathias Vidal as Pluto, this well-executed and delightfully silly bit of fluff, produced in cooperation with the Festival’s own European Academy of Music, is very much an ensemble effort, with the strong, clear young voices of the academy’s singers enthusiastically supported by conductor Alain Altinoglu and the Camerata Salzburg orchestra. The audience loved it, and, judging by the whooping celebration that erupted backstage after the final curtain call, so did the entire cast and crew.

On in repertory in the courtyard theater of the Episcopal Palace until July 20.

Next up: Götterdämmerung, the fourth and last installment of the Festival’s four-year presentation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

This article is the second in a series of three pieces on the 2009 Aix festival. Read the other two pieces in our Culture section.




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