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Ensemble

Much Praise

'Orpheus in the Underworld' from Kentish Opera,
reviewed by PIPPA HARE

 

At the start of his career, the composer Jacques Offenbach suffered from colleagues who, due to his success and their jealousy, liked to suggest that he was a composer of exclusively 'light music' and only produced one single serious work, towards the end of his life, Les Contes d'Hoffmann. This of course was not the case.

Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and David Newman as Orpheus in Act 1 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown
Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and David Newman as Orpheus in Act 1 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown

The first performance of Orpheus in the Underworld ('Orphee aux enfers') as a two act opera, was on 21 October 1858 at the Theatre des Bouffes Parisiens in Paris, where Offenbach was manager at that time. Later it was performed as a four act opera (designated as an opera feerie) at the Opera de la Gaite in 1874. In 1865 it came to Her Majesty's Theatre in London.

Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and David Newman as Orpheus in Act 1 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown
Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and David Newman as Orpheus in Act 1 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown

This was the first time that Offenbach had used mythology in an operetta and Orpheus received a bad press -- it was considered to be an irreverent parody of Gluck's Orpheo and Euridice and he was accused of poking fun at the music of Gluck. Two critics of the time, Clement and Larousse, said that the piece was 'une parodie grotesque et grossiere' -- a coarse and grotesque parody and that it gave off 'une odeur malsaine', an unhealthy odour. However, Piat, another critic, found it to be a 'bijou', a jewel which only snobs would fail to appreciate! Offenbach, however, was not too worried about the bad publicity as he was in bad financial straits and any publicity was better than none! In the end, with the proceeds from Orpheus, he was able to buy the house of his dreams, the Villa Orphee, overlooking the Channel.

Joe Shovelton as Aristaeus and Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice in Act 1 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown
Joe Shovelton as Aristaeus and Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice in Act 1 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown

The final performance of Kentish Opera's production had clearly moved on a long way from those early days, and in my opinion it would be hard to award it less than 'five stars' for this recent production of Orpheus in the Underworld [seen 31 October 2009]. It gripped one from start to finish and 'tripped' through with veuve.

Ian Belsey as Jupiter and Joe Shovelton as Aristaeus in Act 1 Scene 2 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown
Ian Belsey as Jupiter and Joe Shovelton as Aristaeus in Act 1 Scene 2 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown

Much praise must go to their new director, Terry John Bates, for an imaginative and slick production. I would be very hard pressed to find much to criticise. All this of course is only possible with a responsive cast, and there they were, with not only singing skills but also great acting and dancing ability.

Ian Belsey as Jupiter, Nicola Widenbach as Juno, Lisa Swayne as Diana and Letitia Perry as Minerva in Act 1 Scene 2 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown
Ian Belsey as Jupiter, Nicola Widenbach as Juno, Lisa Swayne as Diana and Letitia Perry as Minerva in Act 1 Scene 2 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown

The costumes were not only stylish, but imaginative, and Carol Stevenson added so much to the performance in her area of expertise. In particular in Act II with the fluffy white heaven scene, every costume was more stunning than the next and the whole stage was covered with (inhabited) sleeping bags and wiggling toes -- memorable indeed!

Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and Ian Belsey as Jupiter in Act 2 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown
Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and Ian Belsey as Jupiter in Act 2 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown

Mark Fitz-Gerald and his orchestra should have a special mention for their sympathetic playing and their skill in never letting their sound become too loud, which so often can be the case.

Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and Ian Belsey as Jupiter in Act 2 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown
Stefanie Kemball-Read as Euridice and Ian Belsey as Jupiter in Act 2 Scene 1 of Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' at Kentish Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Brown

In particular, Stephanie Kemball-Read as Eurydice seemed to go from strength to strength, even though she was on stage for a large part of the performance. Ian Besley made a superb Jupiter and definitely enlarged the part by his cheeky acting and powerful baritone voice.

Lisa Swayne as Diana made light of her high notes. She projected her voice, enunciating her words especially well. The audience clearly enjoyed Greg Tassell, whose cavorting contortions as Mercury were extremely skilful.

The slight Myvanwy Bentall as Cupid was gently flirtatious and showed off her pretty soprano voice in an understated way. She assumed her part of a young boy convincingly.

My final reaction to Kentish Opera has to be 'Now follow that ...!'

Copyright © 16 December 2009 Pippa Hare,
Kent UK

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UNITED KINGDOM

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