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Theatre / Orpheus in the Underworld

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Eurydice's having A Hell of a Time.

The advent of mainstream opera began with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in 1607 to Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762. With new takes on the story continuing to this day, it was inevitable that parodies would ensue.

Enter Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, a comic parody first performed in 1858 that lampooned 250 years of Orphean operas, as well as the decadent nobility of the day. Both praised and lambasted for the same reasons, it's essentially the Airplane! of opera—skewering familiar tropes, characters, and scenarios so thoroughly that serious retellings of the myth were hard to find for years afterward.

Orpheus and Eurydice, in contrast to the Greek myth, are an unhappily married couple. Between Orpheus's terrible violin playing and Eurydice's thirst for adventure, each is pining for someone different—Orpheus for the shepherdess Chloe, and Eurydice for a mysterious shepherd who calls himself Aristaeus. Little does she know he's actually Pluto, Lord of the Underworld, in disguise. With help from Orpheus, who's all too happy to be rid of Eurydice, she's successfully killed and taken to the Underworld, where Pluto plans to make her his bride.

Unfortunately for Orpheus, Public Opinion demands he go and rescue his wife, and unfortunately for Pluto, the gods and goddesses of Olympus aren't pleased with his shenanigans. Jupiter leads the charge in an expedition to Hades, hoping to both throw a magnificent party and seize Eurydice for himself, while Orpheus reluctantly takes up the call to rescue Eurydice. In the end, while it's hardly a traditional take on the story, it ends as happily as it can-can.

This opera is also the source of The Cancan Song, initially called the Infernal Galop.

This opera contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Besides adding a lot more gods than usual, a revision made in 1874 expanded the two-act opera to four, with additional revisions adding optional scenes in Neptune's underwater kingdom.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The English translation of the show has John Styx as Eurydice's final pick instead of Bacchus.
  • Anachronism Stew: The opera is essentially an Ancient Greek tragedy morphed into a ridiculous contemporary comedy, with various productions including elements like bicycles or photographs. Also, in the final act, everyone sings and dances to a French Can-Can, which first appeared in the late 19th Century.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The opera parodies the anthropomorphic motivational figures from other operatic versions of the Orpheus legend by having a character named Public Opinion appear and basically tell Orpheus to get on with the plot.
  • Canon Foreigner: John Styx, Pluto's jailer, is original to the opera.
  • Composite Character: Eurydice acts as both herself, the wife of Orpheus, and as Persephone, Hades' wife who he kidnapped to make his bride.
  • Death Song: Eurydice actually demands she get to sing a death song when she realizes she's about to die. Pluto waits while she sings "La mort m'apparaît souriante" before taking her down to the Underworld.
  • Don't Look Back: While Orpheus doesn't really want to rescue his wife, he obeys instructions to the point where Zeus has to scare him into looking back with a lightning bolt.
  • Ensemble Cast: While many Orpheus operas have a small cast of characters, this one goes all-out and brings in the many gods from Olympus, all with their own quirks.
  • Everybody Hates Hades: Parodied, as although the operetta plays with the Mephistophelian on a few occasions, Pluto is portrayed more as a lovable lech who is in many ways more sympathetic than big hypocrite Jupiter. Also the Underworld is shown to be much more of a fun place than stolid Olympus.
  • Fractured Fairy Tale: The story is a warped retelling of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus' marriage is on the rocks. Eurydice has a lover, Aristaeus, who turns out to be the god of the underworld who sees to it that she dies of a snakebite so she can be with him forever. Orpheus is then spurred on to make his journey by Public Opinion.
  • A Hell of a Time: The Underworld is a barrel of fun, which is why Eurydice doesn't want to go home with boring old Orpheus.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Orpheus is a terrible violin player, with his music being used as torture for Eurydice.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Jupiter condemns Pluto's philandering when he's much more well-known for bedroom antics, as Juno lampshades.
    • Pluto kidnaps Eurydice to have her as his bride/lover, which she initially likes but eventually grows bored with. Jupiter then frees her for the same reason...but Jupiter's such a fun guy that she doesn't care (he's better than stupid boring Orpheus).
  • Last Girl Wins: A male variant. After both Pluto and Jupiter get sick of Eurydice, she's paired off with Bacchus, with both parties pleased at the arrangement.
  • Lighter and Softer: The original story is a tragedy, while this one is a wacky comedy.
  • Nature Abhors a Virgin: Diana is supposed to be virginal but really wants to get it on with her boyfriend; Jupiter nips this in the bud by turning him into a stag.
  • Not Me This Time: Given Jupiter's many, many lovers and indiscretions, the whole of Olympus is shocked when for once it's Pluto who kidnapped a girl to make his bride.
  • Parody: A specific target of the work is Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, with Public Opinion serving as a counterpart to Cupid. Orpheus even sings a bit of the famous "Che farò senza Euridice" aira to be let into Hades.
  • Patter Song: The opera has several patter songs.
    "Que prouvent ces métamorphoses?"
    "C'est que tu te trouves si laid"
    "Que pour te faire aimer, tu n'oses"
    "Te montrer tel que l'on t'a fait..."
  • Rescued from the Underworld: Parodied to Hades and back as both sides of the couple are happiest without each other, but Public Opinion demands Orpheus at least try to save his wife.
  • Setting Update: Several adaptations of the opera place it in the modern day or close to it, with humorous additions like Mercury arriving on rollerskates or a bike, Public Opinion being a busybody reporter, and Juno displaying photos of Jupiter's many lovers.
  • To Hell and Back: This is what Orpheus's plan is, but Eurydice has other ideas.
  • The Unintelligible: Played for laughs when Jupiter tries to seduce Eurydice in the form of a fly; his portion of the song is nothing but buzzing.
  • World of Jerkass: Everyone on and beneath Olympus is a self-absorbed, hedonistic jerk, with almost no exceptions. Being a comedy, this is played for laughs.