Opera Review – Orpheus in the Underworld

Scottish Opera – 10 September 2011

As published on Opera Britannia

Rating: ★★★★☆

Scottish Opera is at the start of taking a bawdy romp around Scotland and Northern Ireland with an inventive, witty and utterly filthy Orpheus in the Underworld. This is an exemplary touring show – satirical, relevant, well sung and with plenty of naughtiness to torment Tain, disgust Dumfries or provoke outrage in Armagh. That it very precisely sets out to subvert petty morality with its portrayal of the hypocrisies of Public Opinion will make achieving such outrage all the sweeter.

The action begins with Máire Flavin the very character of Public Opinion herself stumbling about the theatre looking for the stage. When she eventually finds it, she proceeds to lecture the audience on its morals and immediately reveals one of the true stars of the show – the new translation by Rory Bremner. From the outset, it is clear that this is going to be an entertaining evening. Bremner’s translation is inventive and laugh-out-loud funny throughout.

Public Opinion herself is dressed head to toe in tabloid newsprint and seems to embody pseudo-outraged bigotry of some of the columnists of the tabloid press. It is our relationship with the press and celebrity which is to dominate the action – earth is a place where tabloid celebs fight and squabble. Heaven turns out to be a very sophisticated cocktail bar high above London where the true A-List stars hang out, and the underworld is a sleezy joint where they all go slumming it.

Two figures dominated the stage whenever they were present – Jane Harrington as Eurydice and Brendan Collins as Jupiter. Eurydice may never have been portrayed as a tarty Essex girl before, but Ms Harrington was up for the challenge. Indeed, she was up for anything. Her voice sauntered through the score making all seem effortless. Moving from speech to singing and remaining in character was perhaps the trickiest part of what she had been asked to do. This task was perhaps more ably accomplished by Gavan Ring as Pluto the God of the Underworld, or, when he was trying it on with Eurydice, as Aristaeus, personal trainer to the stars.

Collins’s Jupiter was king of the gods, king of the stage and king of the vocal action too. An enormously rich, burnished tone never faltered throughout, even when he was upside down being stripped to his boxers for the amusement of the other deities. His voice had immense power and authority and was a joy to listen to. All credit to him for making his voice the centre of attention even as his appearance became more bizarre and his activities more lewd. His bondage-clad buzzing fly disguise lingers for far, far too long in the memory.


Ross McInroy struggled a bit to make his John Styx a believable Glasgow drunk. (The audience knew that character all too well). He did get some of the best lines though and even managed to, well, titillate us with a slight emphasis on the second syllable of “Quantitative Easing” as he tried to have his way with Eurydice.

The rest of the cast was nicely balanced. Daire Halpin and Marie Clare Breen were two very confident daughters of Jupiter, Diana and Venus. Mercury is wittily turned into the cocktail waiter for the deities and is sung by Christopher Diffey whose portrayal left one wanting more. Orpheus himself was competently sung by Nicholas Sherratt though the part itself is not the most exciting title role in the repertoire. Here he was a streetwise Nigel Kennedy figure, clutching a violin and sounding slightly in awe of Miss Harrington’s in-your-face Eurydice. In this battle of the sexes, she won, hands down.

Bremner’s translation never failed nor flagged though it is so up to date that it is hard not to imagine that it will need refreshing even before the end of the tour. The Greek bailouts, parliamentary shenanigans, the Murdoch press are all beautifully sent up though amidst all the comedy, great praise is due for a translation which fits the music like a glove. Text and score married beautifully.

Simon Holdsworth’s design is inventive and fully integrated into the production and considerably more exciting than last year’s Carmen tour which seemed to take place entirely within a corrugated iron box. Here, the backdrops are large pages from the red-top press or celebrity magazines. One particularly stunning reveal came at the end of Act 1 when one of these pages was ripped away to take us to the stylish bar where the gods were snoozing.


Down in the pit there was…. well, nothing going on at all. Scottish Opera’s tour has been a mixture of cut down orchestra, and piano-only performances for the last few years. A twelve piece band will join in with some of the tour this year, particularly when it makes it over the sea to Northern Ireland. It did seem bizarre that the tour began in the perfect theatre for a small orchestra and yet none was present. However, notwithstanding the fact that no-one goes to Offenbach’s Orpheus to hear a pianist, Ruth Wilkinson played the tricky score with commendable panache. Inexplicably, the orchestra will also be absent when the tour hits England with three performances at the Young Vic in London in December

It is a sign of the inventiveness and wit of the rest of the production that the Infernal Gallop (aka the Can-Can) is rather a let down when it comes. The slow line dancing which precedes it is a good deal more funny.

The point of this production is clearly to make us laugh and it achieves that easily. Director Oliver Mears might do well to remember that the anticipation of vulgarity is considerably more hilarious than actual vulgarity and for that reason, the first half of the evening turns out to be both the funnier and the more satisfactory.

Public Opinion on the stage ends with a rather guilty snog from Pluto the king of the underworld. Public opinion in the theatre cheered so loudly and applauded for so long than the cast were forced out onto stage for more bows than the lighting designer had anticipated. However, this production is particularly recommended to those who like to storm out at half time and write outraged letters to the press. Should you be such as these, never forget for a moment whilst doing so, that it is all about you.

Heartfelt congratulations to Scottish Opera for having the courage to tour this show to Stornoway.

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