John Frayne: 'Orpheus in the Underworld' a humdinger of a show
The Opera Program of the School of Music at UIUC has a new name, "Lyric Theatre Illinois," and the first production under that name was Jacques Offenbach's operetta "Orpheus in the Underworld," which played in the Tryon Festival Theatre from March 6-9.
I attended the final Sunday afternoon matinee.
Let me begin by mentioning some of the highlights.
As directed by Dawn Harris, the revolt of the Olympic gods at the end of Act I was well staged, came across as good fun, and the impact of the ensemble finale in part made up for a slow start.
The second act, in Hades, had more delights to enjoy. The droll song "The King of the Boeotians" was sung with commendable understatement by Lyle Jackson in the character of "John Styx."
In my opinion, the big hit of the afternoon was the "Fly Duet" between Eurydice (sung and acted in a lively manner by Mileeyae Kwon) and Jupiter (sung by Michael O'Halloran in his overall vigorous portrayal of Jupiter).
The fly costume of Jupiter, with quivering wings, was hilariously manipulated by O'Halloran, and Kwon almost made me believe that she was in love with a fly. In the sly, leg-pulling music, Offenbach came close to the Papageno/Papagena duet near the end of Wolfgang Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
The grand climax of the whole operetta was the famous "Can-Can" sung and danced by the Olympic gods and just about everyone else in the cast. This produced rhythmic clapping from the audience, which gave a happy conclusion to the performance, but I must say that the show got off to a slow start. The libretto is a burlesque send-up of the famous story of the great mythic musician Orpheus, who, by the power of his music, brings back his beloved Eurydice from the land of the dead. In the Offenbach work, Orpheus and Eurydice are both carrying on extramarital affairs, and she loathes and detests his violin playing.
The singing in this production was easier to understand thanks to the supertitles, but the spoken dialogue was difficult to understand. The costumes, designed by Helene Siebrits, varied in style. Rachel Kallman, playing with pointed comic wit "Public Opinion," was dressed in a 1950s club woman outfit. Orpheus, played with understatement as the "fall guy" by Lee Steiner, was dressed in ordinary contemporary leisure garb. Both were on a realistic level. Most other players wore conventional "Arcadian" costumes or garb associated with traditional pictures of the Olympic gods. The scenic design by Joe C. Klug achieved striking comic tableaux with few formal stage sets, and the lighting by Lauren Tyler added to the chaotic tumults in Hades.
Benjamin Krumrieg played a varied and active Aristaeus/Pluto. Among the bored, later rebellious, and finally orgiastic gods were Amanda Kasem as Juno, Alexandra Nowakowski as Diana, Jorge Belonni as Mars, Edward Brennan as Mercury, and Rachel Wolfe as Venus. Claire Swale stood out as a very pert Cupid. In other performances, "Public Opinion" was sung by Cassandra Jackson and Eurydice was sung by Lara Semetko. The chorus sang lustily in the merry scene in Hades.
The inventive dancing was choreographed by Rebecca Nettl-Fiol. The three female dancers in usual feminine dancing costumes were balanced by three young male dancers, dressed like the young women. Paul Vermel, longtime professor of conducting at UIUC as well as maestro of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, made a return visit conducting these performances. His beat was admirably clear, and his tempos well chosen, and the playing of the largely student pit orchestra was admirable.
This was the first time I have seen a live production of this work, but I have been humming the famous tunes all my life. It was a treat to match melody to character and plot.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.