If you think of the opera solely as a stuffy affair featuring a woman in a Viking helmet, you’re obviously unfamiliar with Jacques Offenbach.
In the 19th century when his contemporaries were busy creating serious operas, Offenbach turned the medium on its head, singlehandedly creating a new genre called opèra bouffe. Lighter and funnier than a standard opera, opèra bouffe emphasized the satire and wittiness of comic opera.
Greek mythology was a popular subject among Offenbach’s cohorts, but his interpretation of the Orpheus legend would feel right home as a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. And this weekend, Virginia Opera’s production of his “Orpheus in the Underworld” comes to Richmond CenterStage.
“What Offenbach was doing was making fun of the genre, making fun of the use of Greek mythology as a subject matter for opera, and using the opera as a provocation to talk about social mores and hypocrisy,” says Sam Helfrich, the opera’s director. “A lot of priests at the time considered it really offensive and kind of vulgar. There’s a lot of sex jokes and everybody’s sleeping with everybody else.”
In the classic legend, Orpheus is so in love with his wife, Eurydice, that he travels to the underworld in an attempt to bring her back from the dead. In Offenbach’s version, Orpheus can’t stand Eurydice, who habitually cheats on him. It’s only after others blackmail him that Orpheus reluctantly tries to save her.
“All he wants to do is get rid of his wife,” says Javier Abreu, who plays Orpheus. “What he doesn’t count on is the fact that everyone wants his wife, and so she’s sort of a Goldilocks of sorts, trying on what bed she likes the best.”
These days, a story about a sexually promiscuous woman who can’t get out of her marriage might seem like something on prime-time network television, but it scandalized Offenbach’s audiences.
“For its time in 1858 when the opera was first put on, she was considered an incredibly vulgar character because she was so brazen,” says Helfrich, who depicts Eurydice and Orpheus as a modern couple in a failing marriage.
In Helfrich’s interpretation, the gods of Olympus are an affluent family, headed by the patriarch Jupiter. As they sit on their heavenly perch, Jupiter hypocritically berates his family while engaging in his own extramarital affairs.
“He’s telling his children that they’re depraved,” Helfrich says. “He calls his daughter slutty.”
When they learn that Jupiter is journeying to the underworld to sort things out with Eurydice, they beg to join in on the fun.
“The gods are bored and they’re sick of the ambrosia, and they’re sick of having to act with proper manners,” says Meredith Lustig, who plays Eurydice. “They want to go down to hell and have a good time.”
In the show’s final act, Pluto throws a big party for everyone in the underworld, which is heaven-and-hell themed in this production. After Jupiter dances a minuet, Pluto strikes up “The Infernal Galop,” better known to modern audiences as the can-can.
“That’s one piece that everyone is certainly going to know and love,” says Troy Cook, who plays Jupiter. “It’s a really fast, zany dance and [Jupiter] has a heart attack trying to keep up.”
Fans of the can-can won’t be disappointed.
“There’s a lot of leg,” Abreu says. “There’s a lot of can-can, there’s a bunch of amazing dancers. [Originally] it was bringing a little bit of burlesque to the theater, which scandalized audiences at the time.”
With this staging, Helfrich is using an English translation, which he hopes will aid the opera’s comicality.
“Because it’s in English — and because of the slapstick nature of the humor — you’re able to get it immediately,” Cook says. “It’s a bunch of raucous fun.” S
Virginia Opera’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” plays Oct. 9 and 11 at Richmond CenterStage, 600 E. Grace St. vaopera.org.