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ENO: Offenbach’s Orpheus in The Underworld | Review

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019 - c Clive Barda.
ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019 – c Clive Barda.

The road from Opera with a capital O to the musicals which dominate the West End goes via Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). He injected fun, satire and transgressive innovations into musical theatre that opened up the form and broke down barriers and boundaries. His so called operettas are stepping stones on the way to the musical. For me they are liberating and joyful. The Goldilocks of the musical theatre: not too long, not too short, not too serious, just right. So any chance to see a current production is always a shot in the arm. Don’t be put off by the title.

Orpheus (Ed Lyon) a Romeo figure who has gone down into hell to see if he can bring back his Juliet, here called Eurydice (Mary Bevan, is wonderful). Everyone knows the story, he can have her alive again if he doesn’t look back on the walk up and out. Of course he looks back and loses her forever. This story from Greek mythology was turned into an opera by Christoph Gluck in the eighteenth century. Offenbach writing a century later plays with it adding, parody, satire, comedy and farce to make a wonderfully joyous and entertaining piece. Famously he took a dance from the working class musical hall – the ‘can can’ – and put it on the elite stage. It became the most famous dance of its day and spawned a thousand copies. Offenbach had opened the Pandora’s Box of popular culture and it has never been put back. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

The current production directed by Emma Rice is great fun. She sets it in 1950s Los Angeles and London’s Soho. She has managed to find equivalents for the Greek mythology that resonates with audiences in 2019. So the Gods on Mount Olympus spend their days bored hanging out at a white marble tiled open-air swimming pool in Beverly Hills.

The Underworld is set in a squalid peep show, in the red-light district. The Raymond Revuebar? The set, costumes and props are delightfully apposite. A real London Black Taxi is driven back and forth across the stage (the driver Lucia Lucas has an opinion about everything and so represents Public Opinion), Aristaeus the shepherd wears a white T-shirt with his name in black letters (a great way to help the audience remember who’s who, I think), Jupiter (Willard White) is never without a huge cigar, Pluto (Alex Otterburn superb) has a suitcase labelled ‘Disguises’ a neat shorthand way of conveying to the audience that he changes frequently, the chorus in white latex onesies make for a fabulously farcical flock of sheep in the cornfield scene and so on. Visually this production is a cornucopia of riches.

For me, the highlight of the show is the Underworld scene in which Jupiter disguised as a fly comes to the peep show room to seduce Eurydice. Jupiter is wonderfully amoral as he flaps his blue wings every time he overhears Eurydice singing her love for her new and only friend: the fly. The scene reaches a marvellous climax as both Jupiter and Eurydice with a little help from the fly achieve satisfaction. Bevan’s accompanying top notes and arched back as she does so is a joy. Jupiter immediately reaches for his post coital cigar. This scene alone is worth the price of the ticket. Simply marvellous.

When the company come together to sing as one the atmosphere is electric. Throw in the sumptuous sets, costumes, props and stunning orchestral playing and you have a total experience in which all ones senses are engaged simultaneously, there is nothing like it.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Director Emma Rice makes her ENO debut in a glitzy production that showcases her talents for theatrical spectacle and humour. Orpheus in the Underworld transports us to a hedonistic, party-filled Underworld.

Eurydice is fooled into taking Pluto, ruler of the Underworld, as her lover after her new marriage to Orpheus is broken through tragedy. Orpheus must try to win his wife back, but to achieve the impossible he needs the help of the glamorous, conceited but rather bored gods…

Offenbach’s riotous operetta features the popular ‘Can-can’. Ed Lyon and Mary Bevan are Orpheus and Eurydice with Alan Oke as John Styx and Sir Willard White as Jupiter. Joining them are ENO Harewood Artists Alex Otterburn and Idunnu Münch.

Former ENO Music Director Sian Edwards (1993-95) returns to conduct.

Supported by George & Patti White and a syndicate of donors. In association with Wise Children.

Creative Team
Sian Edwards – Conductor
Valentina Peleggi – Conductor
Emma Rice – Director/English book
Lizzie Clachan – Set Designer
Lez Brotherson – Costume Designer
Malcolm Rippeth – Lighting Designer
Etta Murfitt – Choreographer
Simon Baker – Sound Designer
Tom Morris – English lyrics
Matthew Monaghan – Associate Director

Ed Lyon – Orpheus
Mary Bevan – Eurydice
Lucia Lucas – Public Opinion
Willard White – Jupiter
Robert Hayward – Jupiter (21/26/28 Nov)
Anne-Marie Owens – Juno
Alex Otterburn – Pluto
Alan Oke – John Styx
Ellie Laugharne – Cupid
Keel Watson – Mars
Judith Howarth – Venus
Idunnu Münch – Diana



  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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