The Virginia Opera, the Richmond-based company, opened its George Mason University season on Saturday with a superb production of Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” Of the four or five Virginia Opera shows I’ve seen, this was the most consistently solid in conception and execution.
It is a mid-19th-century sendup of 18th-century opera seria, and a satirical look at the foolishness of theatrical and social conventions of its day. The Virginia Opera’s program did not divulge who did the updating on the book, but the dialogue and translations were snappy and sassy, with only one small cut in the second act.
The plot is a snarky reimagining of the Orpheus legend: There is little difference between the rulers of heaven and Hades, Orpheus has no interest in rescuing Eurydice (whom he cordially detests) and the phrase “go to hell” is usually a cause for rejoicing. The story is so muddled, though, that it’s often unclear who has power over whom. The cast sought to paper over the confusion with sitcom mugging.
The opening scene between the two “lovers” made little sense: Orpheus plays his violin and Eurydice holds her ears in distress, begging him to stop — except the music (and the actual violinist from the pit) is wonderful, so we weren’t sure whom we were laughing at. (Perhaps in upcoming performances they might experiment with awful playing?) In the second act, we’re to believe that Eurydice falls in love with a large fly. The strong influence on Gilbert and Sullivan a few decades later is manifest, but those two kept a better lasso of believability around all the silliness.
Libretto aside, the production and performance were top-notch. Director Sam Helfrich and a fine designing team, particularly Kaye Voyce (costumes), put on a non-stop circus, the chorus often funnier than the principals. I hadn’t heard conductor Anne Manson before, and all I knew of her was of her tenure with the Kansas City Symphony. She drew crisp, effervescent performances from everyone, balanced pit and stage perfectly and executed gradual tempo changes seamlessly.
The large cast was strong throughout, particularly the women. Meredith Lustig (Eurydice), Margaret Gawrysiak (Public Opinion) and Kelly Glyptis (Cupid) had clarion voices and loads of personality. Troy Cook (Jupiter) shone as well, his voice seeming to grow as the night wore on. Some of the other voices (all young) were still perhaps in the process of gaining heft, but there were no weaknesses.
Some of the Virginia Opera’s programming has been overly ambitious, straining cast and orchestra. But this piece was in its sweet spot, with everything working together for a very fine outing.
Battey is a freelance writer.