Arts & Leisure

‘Orphee aux Enfers’ opens June 3 at Town Hall Theater

AT A RECENT rehearsal of the Opera Company of Middlebury’s “Orphee aux Enfers,” Pluto (Lucas Levy) lures Eurydice (Bevin Hill) into the Underworld. This comedic opera in four acts will take the stage at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on June 3. Performers will not be masked during the performances. PHOTO / DAVID DEVINE

Is “Orphee aux Enfers” the funniest opera of all time? Opera Company of Middlebury Artistic Director Doug Anderson thinks it is. So does tenor Lucas Levy, who will sing the role of Pluto, god of the underworld in the production, which opens on June 3. Levy says, “Anyone who thinks of opera as a stuffy art form, this show is the exact opposite.”

For Jacques Offenbach, nothing is too sacred to be satirized — not grand opera, not the gods of Olympus or any other god, not the Emperor of France or the cultivated manners and entertainments of the Parisian upper class. This comic opera, a hit since it premiered in 1858, spoofs them all. In particular, it repeatedly zings Christoph Gluck’s opera “Orpheo ed Euridice.” But to give Gluck equal time, OCM will also stage that opera as the second show of its 2022 season, opening Sept. 28.

Nearly the entire cast of OCM’s “Orphee aux Enfers” — also called “Orpheus in Hell” and “Orpheus in the Underworld” — production was recruited from OCM’s growing cadre of alumni, a talented pool of singers from across the country who have sung here in the past. This not only saved OCM the cost and complexity of holding auditions in New York City during a pandemic, but more importantly led them to assemble a cast that understands and the company’s artistic goals and has a connection with its audience. Stephanie Weiss appeared in the company’s first production, Bizet’s “Carmen” in 2004, and Bevin Hill is here for the ninth time.

Hill says she is energized by direct eye contact with listeners. “That’s why we are here. Our job is to share our gift and our joy.”

What keeps OCM stars coming back? Many mention the intimacy of singing in a small space, where their unamplified voices can reach every listener in each of its 232 seats. Guest conductor Clinton Smith, who usually works in theaters 10 times as large, notes that Offenbach’s early work was created in Paris theaters not much larger than THT.

Although plot barely matters in opera, still less in comic opera, here’s the story, a twist on the ancient Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, a legendary poet and musician, so adored his wife Eurydice, a nymph and daughter of the god Apollo, that when she died, Orpheus heroically traveled to the underworld to try and rescue her.

But Offenbach’s Orpheus (sung by tenor Thomas Glenn), is not that kind of hero. Far from being an inspiring music god, he is a boring and self-centered violin teacher, and his wife Eurydice (soprano Bevin Hill) is totally fed up him. Both are ready to call it quits and have started affairs with others. Eurydice’s sweetheart is the shepherd Aristaeus, played by Pluto in disguise. When Pluto carries her off to the underworld, she is ready and willing to go. Orpheus, discovering that his wife is dead, thanks Jupiter for his good fortune and the freedom to resume dating.

But Orpheus doesn’t get off so easy. A character representing Public Opinion (mezzo soprano Stephanie Weiss) informs him that abandoning his wife is unacceptably uncivilized behavior. He will lose not only his public respect, but all of his paying violin students!

EURYDICE (BEVIN HILL) is pestered by John Styx (Andy Papas), the obnoxious jailer in hell.
Photo by David Devine

So Orpheus heads up Mount Olympus to tell the gods his plan. Being a Greek deity, we learn, is no fun at all. The Olympians are weary of their exalted existence, with its proper behavior and an unvaried diet of nectar and ambrosia. They need a vacation and jump at the chance to accompany Orpheus to the bad place.  Jupiter, king of the gods (sung by baritone Joshua Jeremiah) has an additional reason to make the trip. A serial womanizer, he also has amorous designs on Eurydice. His queen Juno (contralto Angela Christine Smith) and all the other Olympians troop down to hell. Hell in this production strongly resembles a well-known American city where every possible variety of fun is freely available.

The underworld also features the one Offenbach tune that everybody, opera fan or not, already knows by heart, the Can-Can, with alluring dancers who playfully flounce their fluffy skirts. Offenbach’s other melodies are equally listenable.

The full-length opera is sung in French with supertitle translations. Each performance will be preceded by a pre-show lecture, suitable for opera buffs and first-time listeners alike. The continuing miracle of world-class opera in our tiny college town, continues. Don’t miss it!

 

EURYDICE (BEVIN HILL) and Orphée (Thomas Glenn), the bickering couple in Offenbach’s comedy Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).
Photo by David Devine

JUNE 3 – FRIDAY

6:30pm – Pre-show talk with OCM Board Member James Pugh, Memorial Baptist Church

7:30pm – Orphée aux Enfers opening night, Town Hall Theater, Middlebury

Opening night prosecco reception

 

JUNE 5 – SUNDAY Matinée

1:00pm – Pre-show talk with OCM Board Member James Pugh, Memorial Baptist Church

2:00pm – Orphée aux Enfers, Town Hall Theater, Middlebury

 

JUNE 9 – THURSDAY

6:30pm – Pre-show talk with Artistic Director Douglas Anderson, Memorial Baptist Church

7:30pm – Orphée aux Enfers, Town Hall Theater, Middlebury

 

JUNE 10 – FRIDAY

7:00pm – Young Artists Concert, with cash bar and reception to follow

Town Hall Theater, Middlebury

 

JUNE 11 – SATURDAY Matinée

1:00pm – Pre-show talk with Guest Conductor Clinton Smith, Memorial Baptist Church

2:00pm – Orphée aux enfers, Town Hall Theater, Middlebury

 

FREE OPERA FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

Under 26? Get free tickets to the opera. Come to the Town Hall Theater box office, or order online at townhalltheater.org/calendar-and-tickets, or call 802-382-9222.

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