Two ways of doing a comic opera

By March 15, 2013ABC, History, Music, Society, Theatre

Last week we saw, on successive nights, Verdi’s Falstaff and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. As always, I thought Opera Australia’s singers, orchestra, chorus and sets were first class, and though I’d never seen either opera before, Offenbach’s music was familiar to me. Verdi’s was not, but then it was written at the end of his life, when the Wagner mode was dominant: singing, drama, comedy and text are fused into one. The result is that there are no tunes to hum as you leave, and that Classic FM is unlikely to play any of it. The current productions of each opera first appeared in Adelaide, Orpheus last year, and Falstaff in 1995.

Nonetheless, of the two operas Falstaff was the one I preferred. Sir John Falstaff, old, fat and poor, is a figure larger than life and twice as unattractive, and in his pursuit of two married women he arouses the united hostility of the rest of the cast, leading first to his being tipped in a laundry basket into the Thames, and then to being terrorised by imaginary demons at a spooky place.Yet you feel for him as a victim, reflecting that he hasn’t much going for him, and almost cheer when he says, in a weak attempt at restoring his pride, ‘If it weren’t for me, you’d have nothing to exercise your wits on’. He is forgiven at the end, and taken off to a party with everyone else, a feel-good resolution that is central to both the original play and the opera.

Verdi took the character of Sir John from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and the ladies and their plot against him  from the playwright’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is the key role, and it requires an actor/singer who can do farce and pathos, and sing well  for the best part of three hours. Warwick Fyfe delivered on all counts, and he holds the whole opera together. The cheer he got at the curtain call was thoroughly well deserved. Going to that opera made me think again of the way in which comedy for some is deep unhappiness for others. What saves Falstaff from our deep disdain (because he is a lecherous sot) is his zest for life, and his optimism, even after countless falls.

Falstaff feels as though it must be the older opera, because of its serious tone and Tudor setting. But in fact it  appeared at La Scala in Milan in 1893, while Orpheus in the Underworld first thrilled its Paris audiences in 1858, a generation and more earlier. It was a hoot then, and the current production directed by Jonathan Biggins, of the Wharf Revue, with the musical direction of Phillip Scott of the same stable, is even hootier, if you will allow the word.

Offenbach turned the Orpheus myth upside down: Orpheus and Eurydice are married but bored with each other, and having affairs on the side. The Gods on Olympus are bored too, Eurydice’s lover, a simple shepherd. turns out to be Pluto, and whisks her off to Hell after a little plot between himself and Orpheus. Eurydice is happy to go, since Pluto is an exemplary lover. The plot is discovered , and Orpheus is finger-wagged by Public Opinion, and told that he will lose all his violin students unless he goes back to Hell and retrieves his wife. The Gods get involved, decide they will all go to Hell with Jupiter (who is going to sort all this out). The rest is bedlam, with Jupiter deciding, like Pluto, that Eurydice is worth going after, and his thunderbolt at the end makes Orpheus look back, to lose his wife again, to everyone’s satisfaction, himself included.

Why do this? It enables Offenbach and his librettist to poke fun at contemporary French society, its reverence for the classical, its appalling taste and its hypocrisy. The opera, really the first comic operetta, was denounced by the conservatives and lauded by the radicals. Listening to it you can see the precursor of Gilbert and Sullivan’s great series: the satire, the patter songs, the stentorian female voice (Public Opinion), the giggling girls — the lot. In fact, the first G&S collaboration, Thespis, in 1871, was a parody of Orpheus.

Biggins and Scott have given the text innumerable Australian references, and the pace is hectic, with one-liners following one another with great effect. I missed a few because I was laughing too much at the last one. I have nothing but compliments for the cast, which included an effective if not operatic Todd McKenney as Pluto, and for the pace of it all, which was breathless.

But at the end of the evening I realised that I had missed too much of the music. Offenbach was a skilled composer and there is much more to the score of Orpheus than the ‘Infernal Gallop’ of the last Act, better known, though anachronistically, as ‘the Can-Can’. And after the curtain call I didn’t care about any of them.

This was a farce, with the fun overpowering the music. Falstaff was a human comedy, and it will linger on in my mind long after the clever writing and action of Orpheus has faded from my memory.

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