Opera: Orphee Aux Enfers – Jacques Offenbach

“Orphee aux Enfers,” or “Orpheus in Hades,” an opera bouffe in three acts with text by Crémieux and music by Jacques Offenbach, was first produced at the Bouffes Parisiens, Paris, Oct. 21, 1858.

CHARACTERS

Aristeus. Eurydice. Pluto. Diana. Jupiter. Public Opinion. Orpheus. Juno. John Styx (Cerberus). Venus. Mercury. Cupid. Morpheus. Minerva. Bacchus. Gods and goddesses. Mars.

The opera is a clever burlesque on mythology, accomplished in four tableaux. When the curtain rises, we find Eurydice busily engaged in decorating a cottage, situated in the suburbs of Thebes but it is not, as one might have every reason to expect, the habitation of Orpheus. It is that of her lover, Aristeus, who turns out to be Pluto in disguise. Orpheus appears serenading the nymph Maquilla whom he adores. Thus the mythological lovers catch each other red-handed in their flirtations and proceed to have a serious quarrel. Eurydice admits that she detests her spouse and that she is thoroughly bored with his music and his verses, while Orpheus punishes her for her insolence by playing for her his last concerto. She meets the shepherd Aristeus in a cornfield and while wandering with him catches her foot in a snare, her companion thereupon disclosing his real identity. They leave a note for Orpheus, telling him of the fate which has overtaken Eurydice, day is turned into night and they disappear into Hades through a trap-door.

In the next scene, Orpheus is visited by Public Opinion, armed with torch and whip and, much to the musician’s disgust, is informed that he must follow the visitor to Olympus, there to claim his adored wife in order to give to posterity the example of at least one husband who really cared about his partner. Threatened with the loss of his music class, Orpheus consents to the distasteful business.

In the second tableau, the gods and goddesses on Olympus are seeking temporary relief from their boredom in a nap. They are roused by the sound of a hunting-horn which announces the arrival of Diana. It develops that the affair of that young lady with Acteon has not been as much of a credit to her as mythology would lead us to believe.

A great deal of gossip is circulated, Eurydice’s abduction by Pluto being the latest scandalous theme. It becomes evident that Jupiter, who has a wholesome fear of Public Opinion, is kept busy smoothing over things so that posterity will have a better impression of his uncircumspect family. One incident is a revolt of the gods led by Cupid, all protesting that they are sick of nectar and ambrosia and want different fare. When Jupiter tries to quiet the disturbance, they mock his virtuous air, warning him that they know a lot of things about him, and proposing to recite the list. He pleads a business engagement but is detained perforce, and has several escapades recalled unpleasantly to mind. An interruption is afforded by Mercury’s announcement of the approach of Orpheus and Public Opinion and the deities are ordered to behave and to arrange themselves for the reception of company. The two visitors enter and Public Opinion reminds Orpheus that it is time to begin his impassioned plea. This he manages so effectively that Jupiter declares he will assist in the restoration and all the company ask to go along for diversion.

In Tableau III, Eurydice is seen languishing in Pluto’s drawing-room in Hades closely guarded by John Styx. As Pluto has been rather neglectful, Eurydice greets Jupiter’s arrival with pleasure. He is disguised as a large fly and after affecting coyness, he allows Eurydice to catch him. They at once become deeply in love with each other.

In the last tableau, Eurydice is found changed by Jupiter into a Bacchante and Pluto shows some evidence of being glad to resign her to her husband. Jupiter, faithful to his promise, declares that Orpheus shall take Eurydice but only on condition that he shall not look at her until they have crossed the Styx, for he reckons on Orpheus’ curiosity and hopes thus to keep her for himself. They have almost reached the galley and Orpheus, still fearful of Public Opinion, has not looked around, when the anxious Jupiter takes matters into his own hands and gives him an electric kick which causes him to start and turn. Orpheus, able now to excuse himself to Public Opinion, can scarcely conceal his joy and the whole breaks up with a minuet in which Jupiter leads off with Eurydice.

The opera enjoys the distinction of being one of the most popular of all the works of the bouffe class. It parodies the tales of the Olympian gods as ” La Belle Hélène ” does those of the Homeric Heroes and although it was intended primarily to appeal merely to the amusement-seeking class, the wealth of melody in its musical score and the capital humor in its libretto have given it widespread and enduring vogue.

Charming numbers in this admirable burlesque opera are Eurydice’s song, ” La femme dont la coeur rêve ” (” The maiden who with dreaming heart”) ; Aristeus’ pastoral song, ” Voir, voltiger sous les treilles ” (“See fluttering ‘neath the branches “) ; Diana’s song, ” Quand Diana descend dans la plaine” (“When Diana to the plain descends”), with its quaint refrain; Minerva’s song relating the amours of Jupiter; John Styx’ ballad, “Quand j’etais roi de Boétie” (“When I was King”) ; Eurydice’s fly song, “Bel insecte à l’aile dorée” (“Fair insect, with wing of gold”) and her hymn to Bacchus.