This is the opera which introduced me to Natalie Dessay, and her amazing combination of comic acting and brilliant coloratura singing. Offenbach’s version of Orpheus in the Underworld is a complete parody both of the original myth and of Monteverdi’s opera of Orpheus – he even uses musical signatures from Monteverdi when Orpheus is requesting Eurydice back from Jupiter on Mount Olympus.
In the original myth, Orpheus is devastated when Eurydice, his wife, is killed by an adder. He petitions the gods for her return from the Underworld, and eventually goes to the underworld to get her back – so amazing is his music that even Hades is moved to mercy and offers to release Eurydice so long as Orpheus returns to the land above without looking back – Orpheus of course does look back, and loses Eurydice forever.
Offenbach takes a rather less romantic view of the situation. His Eurydice and Orpheus hate each other and are each having affairs with other people (in this song, we see this acknowledged, and see Orpheus torturing Eurydice by forcing her to listen to his latest musical composition). However, Eurydice’s lover turns out to be a disguised Hades, who arranges her death so that he can take her to the Underworld to be with him. Orpheus, initially delighted by this course of events, is forced by Public Opinion (a contralto) to petition Jupiter for her release, but Jupiter has other problems on his hands… and is also rather attracted to Eurydice himself.
(And if you think that all sounds a bit silly, that’s actually only about half of the plot, and it gets much sillier after that. In fact, if you aren’t at work, I recommend to your attention the brilliant ‘Fly Duet‘, in which Jupiter, disguised as a fly, seduces Eurydice. It’s hilarious, perfectly sung, and completely filthy (hence the part about not watching it at work). I’m afraid there are no subtitles on this, but since a lot of the duet is buzzing and most of the humour is pretty visual, I don’t think it matters too much!)
If I was going to mention anything else, I’ve forgotten what it was, but I do recommend this opera – and particularly this version of the opera – to your attention. It really is a magnificent piece of work.