The most famous section of Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers is probably the “galop infernal.” But in addition of being a source of a famous musical quotation, it also makes use of one, the “che farò senza Euridice” theme from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. But the quotation is mocking rather than reverent – this is a version of the story that takes a few liberties with the tale as conventionally told.
Here, Orpheus is a skirt-chasing violin teacher who writes – as his wife Euridice sees it – excruciatingly boring music. At one point he forces her, out of spite, to listen to one of his concertos. And he takes away her earplugs, so that Euridice (Natalie Dessay) has to squirm and fidget and look pained the entire hour and a quarter that the business is supposed to last. Euridice, for her part, is carrying on with a man she thinks is a shepherd. The marriage is, in a word, unharmonious. They hate one another.
Orpheus has set a trap for his wife, in the field of grain that her lover has to cross in order to meet her. Since this version of the story is set in what looks like backstage at a theater, Orpheus (Yann Beuron) has to roll out the miniature field of grain on a flat. He warns Euridice that there is a “surprise” waiting for her shepherd in the field. But as it turns out, Euridice’s shepherd is actually Pluto, the god of the underworld. He lures Euridice into the field, where she finds the “surprise” (the precise nature of which is here left unspecified) and dies. Post-mortem, she leaves a note to her husband, dictated by Pluto, explaining that she has gone to the underworld.
Orpheus, of course, is thrilled. Problem solved, right? But no. Orpheus must deal with Public Opinion, a severe-looking individual who stands in, as she explains, for the Greek chorus of classical drama, except unlike the chorus she doesn’t just stand there repeating what everyone has figured out already. She makes Orpheus go after his wife.
So Orpheus must go up to Mount Olympus to request permission to go to Hades to fetch his wife out. The gods are bored with Olympus, with Jupiter, with nectar and ambrosia, with the whole mythology business – but they have to keep up the charade for the sake of appearances. (They panic for a moment when Orpheus draws near, fearing that the musician is a journalist.) Orpheus makes his request, to the tune of Gluck’s “che farò senza Euridice,” here rendered in exaggeratedly lugubrious style, and his request is granted, because everyone wants to go down to Hades and have some actual fun.
Euridice is once more bored (she is sprawled on a sofa reading a magazine about Princess Diana, which given that this was filmed in late 1997, is in deliciously poor taste) but entertainment soon arrives in the form of Jupiter, who takes on the form of a fly to seduce her (with plenty of buzzing). Everyone else, meanwhile, is at the massive party Pluto has thrown for both the denizens of Hades and the gods of Mt. Olympus; Jupiter tells Euridice to go to the party in disguise and he will whisk her off; and then Orpheus – and the Gluck theme, which sounds like it doesn’t want to be there any more than Orpheus does – both arrive along with Public Opinion, and the whole thing works out just about as you’d expect. Orpheus does look back as he attempts to lead his wife back up into the world, but he does it on purpose and Euridice is relieved – she gets to stay in Hades where the real parties happen, and the operetta closes with a reprise of the “galop infernal.”
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