Orpheus in the Underworld

Overture to Orphée aux enfers (9:23)
Courtesy of Musopen

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Orphée aux enfers, whose title translates from the French as Orpheus in the Underworld, is an opéra bouffe (a form of operetta), or opéra féerie in its revised version. Its score was composed by Jacques Offenbach to a French text written by Ludovic Halévy and later revised by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux.

The work, first performed in 1858, is said to be the first classical full-length operetta.[1] Offenbach's earlier operettas were small-scale one-act works, since the law in France did not allow full-length works of certain genres. Orpheus was not only longer, but more musically adventurous than Offenbach's earlier pieces.[2]

This also marked the first time that Offenbach used Greek mythology as a background for one of his pieces. The operetta is an irreverent parody and scathing satire on Gluck and his Orfeo ed Euridice and culminates in the risqué Galop infernal ("Infernal Galop") that shocked some in the audience at the premiere. Other targets of satire, as would become typical in Offenbach's burlesques, are the stilted performances of classical drama at the Comédie-Française and the scandals in society and politics of the Second French Empire.

The "Infernal Galop" from Act 2, Scene 2, is famous outside classical circles as the music for the "can-can" (to the extent that the tune is widely, but erroneously, called "can-can"). Saint-Saëns borrowed the Galop, slowed it to a crawl, and arranged it for the strings to represent the tortoise in The Carnival of the Animals.

Performance history

Playbill from an 1874 revival

The first performance of the two-act, opéra bouffe version took place at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris on 21 October 1858 and ran for an initial 228 performances. It then returned to the stage a few weeks later, after the cast had been given a rest. For the Vienna production of 1860, Carl Binder provided an overture that became famous, beginning with its bristling fanfare, followed by a tender love song, a dramatic passage, a complex waltz, and, finally, the renowned can-can music.[3]

In America the work played in German at the Stadt Theatre, on Broadway, from March 1861.[4] It had its Czech premiere in 1864, under Adolf Čech.[5] It had a run of 76 performances at Her Majesty's Theatre, in London, beginning on 26 December 1865, in an adaptation by J. R. Planché.[6]

A four-act version, designated as an opéra féerie, was first performed at the Théâtre de la Gaîté on 7 February 1874.[7] (This has proved less popular over time than the original two-act version.)

Sadler's Wells opera presented an English version by Geoffrey Dunn beginning on 16 May 1960.[8] In the 1980s, English National Opera staged the opera freely translated into English by Snoo Wilson with David Pountney. The production was notable for its satirical portrayal of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the character Public Opinion. The first performance was at the Coliseum Theatre in London on 5 September 1985.[9] The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performed the work in the 1990s.[10]In September 1997 a production by Laurent Pelly was mounted in a former hydroelectric plant near Geneva while the stage area of the Grand Théâtre was being renovated, with Yann Beuron and Annick Massis in the title roles and Marc Minkowski conducting;[11] this production moved on to Lyon where it was recorded and filmed.

The Toronto Operetta Theatre staged a controversial performance in Dec. 1993-Jan. 1994 in which heaven was Club Med, and hell was a leather bar.[12]

Critical appreciation

In the eyes of Clément and Larousse[13] the piece is une parodie grotesque et grossière (a coarse and grotesque parody), full of vulgar and indecent scenes that give off une odeur malsaine (an unhealthy odor). In the opinion of Piat, however, Offenbach's Orphée is, like most of his major operettas, a bijou (jewel) that only snobs will fail to appreciate.[14] The piece was not immediately a hit, but critics' condemnation of it, particularly that of Jules Janin, who called it a "profanation of holy and glorious antiquity," only provided vital publicity, serving to heighten the public's curiosity to see the piece.[15]


Role Voice type Premiere cast
(two-act version), 21 October 1858
(Conductor: Jacques Offenbach)
Premiere cast
(four-act version), 7 February 1874
(Conductor: Jacques Offenbach)
Cupidon (Cupid), god of love soprano (en travesti) Coralie Guffroy Matz-Ferrare
Diane (Diana), goddess of chastity soprano Chabert Berthe Perret
Eurydice, wife of Orphée soprano Lise Tautin Marie Cico
John Styx, servant of Pluton, formerly king of Boeotia baritone or tenor Debruille-Bache Alexandre
Junon (Juno), wife of Jupiter mezzo-soprano Marguerite Chabert Pauline Lyon
Jupiter, king of the gods baritone Désiré Christian
L'Opinion Publique (Public Opinion) mezzo-soprano Marguerite Macé-Montrouge Elvire Gilbert
Mars, god of war bass Floquet
Mercure (Mercury), messenger of the gods tenor Jean-François Philbert Pierre Grivot
Minerve (Minerva), goddess of wisdom soprano Marie Cico
Morphée (Morpheus), god of sleep tenor Marchand
Orphée (Orpheus), a musician tenor Tayau Meyronnet
Pluton (Pluto), god of the underworld, disguised as Aristée (Aristaeus), a farmer tenor Léonce Montaubry
Vénus (Venus), goddess of beauty contralto Marie Garnier Angèle
Amour mezzo-soprano Gervais/Enjalbert Matz-Ferrare
Bacchus, god of wine spoken Antognini
Cerbère (Cerberus), three-headed guardian of the underworld barked Tautin snr.
Minos baritone/tenor Georges Dejon-Marchand
Éaque (Aeacus) tenor Jean Paul
Rhadamante (Rhadamanthus) bass
Gods, goddesses, shepherds, shepherdesses, lictors and spirits in the underworld

Synopsis (original two-act opéra bouffe version)

Act 1

Scene 1: Near Thebes

"Ah ! quel supplice". Sven Erik Vikström (Orpheus) and Elisabeth Söderström (Eurydice), Stockholm, 1955.

A melodrama (Introduction and Melodrame) opens the work. Public Opinion explains who she is – the guardian of morality ("Qui suis-je? du Théâtre Antique"). She seeks to rework the story of Orphée (Orpheus) and Eurydice – who, despite being husband and wife, hate each other – into a moral tale for the ages. However, she has her work cut out for her: Eurydice is in love with the shepherd, Aristée (Aristaeus), who lives next door ("La femme dont le coeur rêve"), and Orphée is in love with Chloë, a shepherdess. When Orphée mistakes Eurydice for her, everything comes out, and Eurydice insists they break the marriage off. However Orphée, fearing Public Opinion's reaction, torments her into keeping the scandal quiet using violin music, which she hates.

We now meet Aristée – who is, in fact, Pluton (Pluto) – keeping up his disguise by singing a pastoral song about those awful sheep ("Moi, je suis Aristée"). Since Pluton was originally played by a famous female impersonator, this song contains numerous falsetto notes. Eurydice, however, has discovered what she thinks is a plot by Orphée to kill Aristée, but is in fact a conspiracy between him and Pluton to kill her, so Pluton may have her. Pluton tricks her into walking into the trap by showing immunity to it, and, as she dies, transforms into his true form (Transformation Scene). Eurydice finds that death is not so bad when the God of Death is in love with you ("La mort m'apparaît souriante"), and so keeps coming back for one more verse. They descend into the Underworld as soon as Eurydice has left a note telling her husband she has been unavoidably detained (Descent to the Underworld).

All seems to be going well for Orphée until Public Opinion catches up with him, and threatens to ruin his violin teaching career unless he goes to rescue his wife. Orphée reluctantly agrees.

Scene 2: Olympus

The scene changes to Olympus, where the Gods sleep out of boredom ("Dormons, dormons"). Things look a bit more interesting for them when Diane (Diana) returns and begins gossiping about Actaeon, her current love ("Quand Diane descend dans la plaine"). However, Jupiter, shocked at the behaviour of the supposedly virgin goddess, has turned Actaeon into a stag. Pluto then arrives, and reveals to the other gods the pleasures of Hell, leading them to revolt against horrid ambrosia, hideous nectar, and the sheer boredom of Olympus ("Aux armes, dieux et demi-dieux!"). Jupiter's demands to know what is going on lead them to point out his hypocrisy at great length, describing – and poking fun at – all his mythological affairs. However, little further progress can be made before news of Orphée's arrival forces the gods to get onto their best behaviour. Pluto is worried he will be forced to give Eurydice back, and, after a quotation from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice sends the gods to tears, Jupiter announces that he is going to Hell to sort everything out. The other gods beg to come with him, he consents, and mass celebration breaks out at this holiday ("Gloire! gloire à Jupiter").

Act 2

Scene 1

Eurydice is being kept locked up by Pluto, and is finding life very dull. Her gaoler, a dull-witted tippler by the name of John Styx, is not helping, particularly his habit of telling, at the slightest provocation, all about how he was King of Boeotia (a region of Greece that Aristophanes used as a source of rural rubes) until he died. But if he had not died, he would still be king ("Quand j'étais roi de Béotie").

Jupiter spots where Pluton hid Eurydice whilst being shown around by him, and slips through the keyhole by turning into a beautiful, golden fly. He meets Eurydice on the other side, and sings a love duet with her where his part consists entirely of buzzing ("Bel insecte à l'aile dorée"). Afterwards, he reveals himself to her, and promises to help her, largely because he wants her for himself.

Scene 2

The scene shifts to a huge party the gods are having in Hell, where ambrosia, nectar, and propriety are nowhere to be seen ("Vive le vin! Vive Pluton!"). Eurydice sneaks in disguised as a bacchante ("J'ai vu le dieu Bacchus"), but Jupiter's plan to sneak her out is interrupted by calls for a dance. Unfortunately, Jupiter can only dance minuets which everyone else finds boring and awful ("La la la. Le menuet n'est vraiment si charmant"). Things liven up, though, as the most famous number in the operetta, the Galop Infernal (best known as the music of the can-can) starts, and everyone throws himself into it with wild abandon ("Ce bal est original").

Ominous violin music heralds the approach of Orphée (Entrance of Orphée and Public Opinion), but Jupiter has a plan, and promises to keep Eurydice away from him. As with the standard myth, Orphée must not look back, or he will lose Eurydice forever ("Ne regarde pas en arrière!"). Public Opinion keeps a close eye on him, to keep him from cheating, but Jupiter throws a lightning bolt, making him jump and look back, and so all ends happily, with a reprise of the Galop.




The operetta has been recorded many times.

There is a recording in English (highlights only) by The Sadlers Wells Opera with June Bronhill as Euridice and Eric Shilling as Jupiter.


In 1983 BBC television broadcast a production with Denis Quilley as Jupiter/Napoleon III and Honor Blackman as Juno/Empress Eugénie, with Lillian Watson, Alexander Oliver, Isobel Buchanan, Felicity Palmer, Pauline Tinsley, Christopher Gable, conducted by Alexander Faris.[16]

1997: The Lyon production is also issued on DVD with Minkowski conducting, Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Yann Beuron and others in a production by Laurent Pelly (TDK DV-OPOAE). This is basically the two-act version.


  1. Holden, p. 267
  2. Lamb, Andrew, "Orphée aux enfers", in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1992) ISBN 0-333-73432-7
  3. Hall, George. Notes to Decca CD 425 083-2, 1994
  4. Holden, p. 268
  5. Cesky hudebny slovnik; Retrieved 21 April 2013
  6. "Haymarket Theatre", The Observer, 31 December 1865, p. 3
  7. "Orpheus in the Underworld" Musical Theatre Guide
  8. "A Modern Orpheus", The Times, 18 May 1960, p. 18
  9. Sleeve notes to the CD recording of the ENO production: CDTER 1134
  10. Milnes, Rodney. "All down to a hell of a good snigger" The Times, 22 Monday, March 1993; and Sutcliffe, Tom. "Styx for Kicks", The Guardian 21 April 1993, p. A6
  11. Kasow, J. Massis's Eurydice – report from Geneva. Opera, January 1998, Vol 49, No 1, p101-2.
  12. http://www.torontooperetta.com/past-shows.html
  13. Félix Clément and Pierre Larousse: Dictionnaire des opéras (rev. Arthur Pougin), Da Capo Press Music Reprint Series, New York 1969
  14. Jean-Bernard Piat: Guide du mélomane averti, Le Livre de Poche 8026, Paris 1992
  15. From Answers.com
  16. Orpheus in the Underworld, 1983 BFI database, accessed 10 April 2013.
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