The Greek myth of Orpheus is a timeless legend about the power and futility of human love, in which Orpheus, a gifted musician, braves the dangers of the underworld to beg for the return of his beloved Eurydice. It's been a popular subject for centuries, with composers inspired by the sacred ideals of love and music as embodied by Orpheus' pursuit of his beloved even in death.
But if you like your Greek mythology with a little more spice, then read on! Everything is turned upside down in Jacques Offenbach's 1858 operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. Instead of a noble pair of lovers, Orpheus is now a conceited music professor pursuing nymphs while his wife Eurydice hates his music and is having an affair with a shepherd. Instead of noble gods and goddesses led by the brave Jupiter, Mount Olympus is populated by bored and dissolute deities who can't wait to revolt against Jupiter's hypocritical reign. There is seduction, infidelity, sexual innuendo, and inebriation. There's even an infectious can-can.
Orpheus in the Underworld is the opening production of Pocket Opera's 2008 season. For more than thirty years, Pocket Opera has been presenting intimate, accessible opera productions to Bay Area audiences, performing mostly in English with translations by the company's founder, Donald Pippin. Now in his early eighties, Pippin still leads from the piano and introduces each scene with brevity and wit. His libretti are clever, flexible, and accessible. Pippin believes in translating "the spirit of the work rather than word by word, with complete fidelity to the composer's musical intentions" and the translations serve the singers, audience, and original texts alike.
Pocket Opera works in small houses with minimal sets, costumes, and staging. The orchestra is small, usually 8-15 instrumentalists with Pippin at the piano. There is none of the pomp and circumstance that you can expect from larger operatic productions, which often include dramatic set changes, elaborate costumes and even animals onstage (I've seen everything from a toy poodle to an elephant!). Pocket Opera's Orpheus is both approachable and enjoyable, but there's also nowhere to hide -- during opening night, on the few occasions when a line was missed or the singers and orchestra were out of sync, you could tell immediately.
While energetic and committed, the cast possessed a wide range of vocal and dramatic ability. The production was anchored by Jillian Boye's excellent performance as Eurydice. She brought a powerful voice, good comedic instincts and a vivacious presence to the role. Michael Mendelsohn was a hilarious Pluto, changing easily from seductive to scheming to silly as the situation required. In smaller roles, Jennifer Nadig as Venus and Julia Louise Hosack as Diana stood out for their bright singing and comic energy. A bit less comfortable when singing, Nicholas Patton as Orpheus and Donna Olson as Public Opinion were persuasive and funny during their speaking parts. Public Opinion's characterization as a member of the paparazzi, frequently snapping pictures of the main characters, was an amusing modern touch.
Orpheus in the Underworld is an operetta, a light comedic genre that is frequently performed in English. As a result, this production lacks the sense of revelation that can come from seeing a well-known foreign work performed in a good translation. The rest of Pocket Opera's season includes plenty of opportunities to see English versions of familiar favorites that are usually performed in foreign languages, including Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte and Puccini's La Bohème.
Pocket Opera's Orpheus in the Underworld runs through March 15, 2008 at the Legion of Honor, located in Lincoln Park at 34th Avenue and Clement Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit pocketopera.org or call 415-972-8934.