Central City Opera has announced a change in next season's lineup, replacing the somewhat nebulous "Blast of Broadway" revue with a full production of Orpheé aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) by Jacques Offenbach. Performed in French with English supertitles, it is a prime example of the "opera bouffe" works that filled Parisian stages during France's golden age of operetta, which effectively came to an end in 1870 with the country's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
Orpheus (1858) is the first in a string of seven major Offenbach hits that essentially created the concept of satirical French musical theater. Along with his librettist collaborators (Meilhac and Halévy), the operettas by this trio are often compared to the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, especially given their sting of social commentary delivered in rapid-fire rhyming lyrics. This particular piece deals with the mythological story of Orpheus descending into the Underworld in order to rescue his estranged wife (Euridice) from her new lover, Pluto. Unlike more serious musical versions of this story -- in the opera by Gluck, for example -- many of the lines delivered by the characters have a double meaning, intended to satirize both the government and the society of Offenbach's day. While these references are generally beyond the ken of today's audiences, the story is told in such an entertaining manner that the subtext is inessential to enjoying the performance.
Offenbach's music is highly distinctive, and the tunes he wrote are just as delightful in a standalone version as they are within the context of their operettas. [Operetta is distinguished from "opera" in that the musical pieces are separated by spoken rather than sung text.] One of his most famous tunes occurs in Orpheus, the "Galop Infernal" that will forevermore be associated with the dance, the can-can.
Here the brilliant conductor Marc Minkowski leads an ensemble in the "Galop" to wrap up an Offenbach gala presented in Paris in 2001.