Orpheus in the Underworld Review

Another of Metrodome’s ‘Ovation’ releases focussing on filmed theatre, Orpheus in the Underworld sees a 1983 BBC production of Jacques Offenbach’s 1958 operetta making its DVD debut. As with all of the ‘Ovation’ releases to date, its very much an accessible work, one that employs an abundance of innuendo plus a number of actors not best known for their vocal talents, Honor Blackman amongst them. Offenbach’s light hearted take on the Orpheus myth has also been translated into English, whilst the entire production has an air theatricality.

Indeed, this version operates as a play-within-a-play, the central conceit being that Orpheus in the Underworld is being performed, very badly, for a small audience, one that has Emperor Napoleon III at its head. It’s an interesting approach, one that allows the adaptors to have a little distance from their source, and therefore the viewer also. Moreover, it’s an understandable one given the piece’s origins as a BBC transmission and as such guilty, to a degree, of ratings chasing; in adopting this method Orpheus in the Underworld, at least initially, doesn’t so much become about Offenbach’s original work, but rather the jokiness and self-reflexive nature of the theatricality. It’s a moot point, however, as to whether this approach is actually successful. Certainly, Orpheus in the Underworld started out as a light operetta despite its dealings with Greek mythology, but here the overall tone is closer to that of a late period Carry On entry. Moreover, the play-within-a-play structure grows increasingly laborious, drawing attention to its inadequacies (the on-screen audience meet the various jokes with eye-rolling and yawns aplenty) and coming across as decidedly lazy. After all, the director rarely needs to provide any artistic input when the crux of the performance is to be as poor as possible.

Thankfully, the ploy is abandoned a quarter of the way through as Napoleon supposedly dozes off and imagines himself as on of Offenbach’s key characters, namely Jupiter, king of the gods. It’s a welcome shift, especially as the tiny stage used thus far can be exited for more expansive locales, but still problems arise. The bawdiness remains an overriding, not to mention annoying, factor, especially when combined with the broad performances on show here (why does filmed theatre rarely tone these down for the big and small screens, even when, as is the case here, they not are not recorded in front of a live audience?), and as such there’s an overall avoidance to engage with Offenbach’s source. Indeed, should we really be paying attention to actual operetta, or even be taking it seriously? Each number is performed with conviction, and even the non-professional singers, Blackman excepted, come off extremely well. Yet this only serves to jar with the intentional lack of professionalism elsewhere. In order for Orpheus in the Underworld to be a more cohesive piece either these aspects need to be reconsidered or the entire thing be a whole lot more respectful to Offenbach’s original intentions. As such, fans of the composer should look elsewhere.

The Disc

As with their other recent release A Night on the Town, Metrodome have found a print of Orpheus in the Underworld that is in pretty much perfect condition. Shot on video for it TV transmission, the original picture quality is understandably not the greatest, and as such any flaws in the look of the disc would appear to be inherent in the source rather that this DVD’s production. Equally fine is the soundtrack, a DD2.0 offering that remains clean throughout and never once struggles with the vocal talents on display. Sadly, extras are limited to - admittedly in depth - biographies for Offenbach and the key cast members.

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Last updated: 10/06/2018 20:38:06

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