If I could give this production six stars I would. It is an absolute joy. It is a bit ramshackle – the scenery probably cost 1% of the budget for the latest blockbuster co-production at Covent Garden. The singers are students from the RAM opera course and some show signs that they are still learning their trade. But for sheer musical and comedic impact – for collective joie de vivre – this is a show that puts some of the recent big house productions in the shade. What a pity that it is only on for four nights.
First performed in 1858, Orphee aux Enfers was a success with audiences but not with the critics who thought it indecent and a profanation of classical myth. It parodies the story of Orpheus and Eurydice – instead of suffering a tragic death on her wedding day, Eurydice is only too happy to get away from her boring husband and is keen to sample the delights of hell in the company of the dashing Pluto. The gods on Olympus are fed up with the bland diet of nectar and ambrosia and, when “Public Opinion” forces Jupiter and a very reluctant Orpheus to head down to hell to rescue Eurydice, the gods insist on accompanying them “for the outing”. Total nonsense, of course, but in the hands of director Martin Duncan and the splendid band of singers and players the plot is the launching pad for lots of good jokes and some superb music, orchestral and vocal.
There are two casts alternating on the four nights. I was lucky enough to see Alys Roberts as Eurydice. She was brilliant, singing her arias in Parisian French and speaking her dialogue in an accent from the wrong end of Cardiff Bay. This young singer sang like a lark, reached the highest notes with aplomb and has real gift for comedy. Her Orpheus was the young Siberian tenor Mikhail Shepelenko, singing with sweetness and charm, and whose dedication to his art, even when Eurydice snipped the strings on his lyre, was admirable. There were so many lovely cameo roles that it seems unfair to pick out any in a short review like this but I have to praise Dominic Bowe’s Jupiter. His buzzing duet with Eurydice when he chooses the form of a golden fly (bull, swan, and shower of gold being old hat) and slips in through a keyhole to attempt a seduction was a comic highlight of the show. And Helen Brackenbury did a fine turn as a Mary Whitehouse incarnation of Public Opinion.
But what made this show such a pleasure was the total commitment of the whole cast, soloists and chorus. As gods and devils, every last singer looked as if they were having a great time and this joyfulness really crossed the footlights to the audience. There are a few big choral moments and, when they came, the sound was bright and brilliant. The great set piece, when the Gods party with the devils in hell, which includes the galop infernal (better known today as the can-can) was every bit as enjoyable as versions I have seen with established stars and ten times the budget. I can only pay tribute to conductor Gareth Hancock, in his first year as director of the RAM opera course, for the way he prepared and controlled this brilliant evening. For those of us who are a bit jaded by the occasional tendency of the big companies to take themselves a little too seriously and by the unpredictable divas who don’t turn up for dress rehearsals, this was an evening to remind us why opera at its simple best can be so superb.