Brassy, hyped up and breathless. A racy premiere of the “Orphée aux enfers” at the Salzburg Festival

„Orphée aux enfers“ by J. Offenbach at Salzburg Festival

23. August 2019

By Oxana Arkaeva

Fotos by Monika Ritterhaus. SF

Not being precisely an operetta hot spot in Austria, the Festival in Salzburg, however, did not want to stay aside from celebrating Offenbach’s jubilee year.  The artistic administration wanted it to be a special one and presented one of the composer’s best-known operettas “Orphée aux enfers”, directed by Australian stage director Barrie Kosky. The premiere on 23 August 2019 was anticipated with great excitement and enjoyed vast publicity. Celebrated by a major part of the audience, many that night, however, left the House of Mozart with their eyebrows raised high. “Nothing more than cheap entertainment, a much-sought-after slapstick,” one could hear rumored in the brake. But for many, the evening presented a welcome opportunity to experience a show full of wit, fun staging, colorful costumes, beautiful stage design, good acting, and singing.

Background It took three years until 1858 when Offenbach finally had his Opéra bouffe “Orphée aux enfers” premiered in Paris with sensational success. Together with Halévy and Crémieux, he rewrote the well-known Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a merciless satire on the Parisian society of the second half of the nineteenth century, and the society of the Second Empire. Barrie Kosky, since 2012 a Chief Director at the Comic Opera in Berlin, is a winner of the 2014 International Opera Awards for Best Director. He made history in 2017, when he became the first Jewish director at the Bayreuth Festival, after directing a phenomenal “Mastersingers of Nuremberg” by Richard Wagner. Kosky, known for his high-pitched, frivolous, full of movement, breathless stagings, created in Salzburg a fantastic, very own Offenbach-world, full of gold, glitter, joyous rush, colorful travesty, and witty ideas. Behind the much-criticized superficiality, an excellent director’s craft-work is hidden, as Kosky exactly knows what he is doing and why. He delivers a very personal society critic in his very own, overblown way, sometimes by a subtle hint, sometimes by very striking, bold references or props. Together with stage designer Rufus Didwiszus (plenty of luxury and opulence) and costume designer Victoria Behr (beautiful Belle Époque costumes) Kosky staged a magnificent satire about men’s quirks and women’s power, as a kind of commentary on the MeToo debate, but mostly as a declaration of his love for the strong women.

Public opinion (Anne Sofie von Otter) looks down on the jealous Orpheus (Joel Prieto) quite grimly. (Photo: Ernst Wukits / Imago)

At the beginning of the performance, the Swedish Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sophie von Otter (still an attractive, but vocally rather pale) stepped in front of the iron curtain and spoke her long opening monologue in Swedish. Only later, it became apparent why: the Swedish royal couple, who themselves are regularly subjected to a scrutiny of the Public Opinion, sat in the audience and applauded the performance. After this rather dry beginning, the performance went on in a brisk, crazy, and breathless way, full of racy, almost perfect choreography (excellent work by choreographer Otto Pichler), elaborate stage equipment, energetic orchestral play, and good singing. This speed and the seeming superficiality has destructed many in the audience form music and singing. At the break, the air around the auditorium was drenched with countless questions and comments. Many wondered if the staging would live up to Offenbach’s spirit and the Zeitgeist. One found the staging rather “a cheap hullabaloo” and “completely apolitical. And that is, of course, not the Offenbach!” The others remarked that “It would do the Festival a good job if those responsible would show more artistic courage to bring out a true Offenbach operetta, rather than this meager piece of entertainment!” But, no matter how the opinions have turned out, the House for Mozart was orderly rocked that evening, and a majority in the audience had its hell fun.

Excellent Max Hopp with Marcel Beekman and Martin Winkler. Foto Monika Ritterhaus, SF

The absolute highlight of the evening was the actor Max Hopp, who acted as a kind of voice-tamer from the silent movie and at the same time as John Styx. Hopp spoke entire dialogues alone. Singers only had to move their lips, which was superbly rehearsed, with almost perfect synchronicity. Sometimes hilarious and comical when, for example, the robust Eurydice in Corsage and Negligee (excellent soprano Kathryn Leweks) was given by Hopp a very deep, pretty filthy male voice. The actor also mimicked the sounds, was impressively text-confident and delivered this three-hour evening in an admirably light, playful manner. With his first-class performance, he literally saved the evening and soothed those who expected the production to be of more society friendly and politically correct.

Kathryn Leweks and Marcel Beekman.

Behind this colorful abundance of glitter, gold, colorful costumes, never-stopping movement and constant allusions of the actors’ (trans-) sexuality, Kosky appears as a knowledgeable, highly talented director, who is genuinely in love with the strong women. The latter receive a special place in this production and defy the typical image of an operetta diva. Thus, the Eurydice is not a model, but a woman of flesh and blood who is not afraid to acknowledge her sexuality publicly. She shows off the attached male genitalia of an impressive size and is the one who drags men in the bed. The goddess Venus, on the other hand, is not an exact Venus from the Hohlefels, but a lean, insecure, pitiful creature, who nevertheless knows how to pull her erotic strings. Public Opinion transforms from a strict teacher in a high-necked dress to a free spirit in a rainbow dress. Even the god of love Cupid is a beautiful woman, with a full female body. The above mentioned (trans-) sexuality plays a vital role in this staging. The male Cancan dancers wear pink ruffled skirts that are very reminiscent of female genitalia. And an entire ballet sometimes acts as sexy, androgynous bees or almost naked and extremely good looking devils.

Off to the Underworld. Foto Monika Ritterhaus, SF

The singing Ensemble was gut, with every soloist equally gifted with a good voice and acting talent. Kathryn Leweks sings Euridike with soft-erotic timbre and first-class high notes. Marcel Beekman, in the role of Pluto, proved vocally and from acting an impressive versatility. Joel Prieto, an unfortunate Orpheus, has a small but elegant-sounding voice, and Martin Winkler‘s facial expressions and voice gave a grandiose boastful, sexually driven Jupiter. Vienna Philharmonics under the button of Enrique Mazzola accompanied with brisk but singable tempis and sounded great. The choir of the Vocalconsort Berlin was an equal partner to the soloists and orchestra in acting and singing. The evening resulted in energetic applause for the production crew and performers, leaving one with a piercing desire to want to experience this grandiose slapstick many times more.

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