Orphée aux Enfers (in German)
Migenes-Johnson, Varnay; Grobe, Shirley, Beirer, Maus; Chorus and Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin, López-Cobos. Production: Friedrich. Arthaus Musik 101 679 (DVD), 161 mins. (opera), 27 mins. (bonus), subtitled
This German-language Orpheus has its feet planted in the time and place of its production — New Year's Day 1984 in West Berlin — as solidly and fatally as in a pair of cement shoes. Two hours and forty minutes of the thinnest of plots, padded with local, topical references and tiresome shtick by local actors, makes for thin gruel indeed. An odd meeting of the flimsy and the heavy-handed, its potential for the export market is close to nil.
Director Götz Friedrich and Thomas Woitkewitsch have tried for relevance in their translation by updating the once-scandalous Second Empire satire with tricks such as a telephone call to Olympus from Los Angeles concerning the 1984 Olympic Games, a reference to "Domingo not appearing in Germany any more" and a swipe at the West Berlin police force's skimpy female uniforms. The English subtitles strain to get closer to 2013, by means such as inserting a reference to CNN.
A director known for vivid operatic characterizations, Friedrich devises quirks and antics for some of these silly gods and mortals and finds energetic comic collaborators in Donald Grobe's bike-riding, violin-playing Orpheus, whose heart is anywhere but with Euridike, and especially in George Shirley's urbane, French-spouting Pluto. For the most part, though, the production is notable for its length and especially its missed opportunities.
The most egregiously wasted resource is Julia Migenes-Johnson. This gifted singing actress is distorted by Friedrich's directing as if in a funhouse mirror that turns each of her graces into a blemish. Here are exaggerated pop-eyed expressions, jerky tics and — worst of all — grotesque body posturing as she somersaults on the floor (at the sound of her husband's hated violin) or struts off at the end of Act I like a hunchbacked soldier. Act II finds her curled up awkwardly, though looking smashingly trim and fit, serving as straightman to tiresome business by comic actor Helmuth Lohner as the drunken servant Hans Styx.
In another casualty, illustrious Astrid Varnay becomes a drab, harsh Juno, like an unfunny Thelma Ritter. Heldentenor emeritus Hans Beirer tirelessly barks Jupiter's lines in the argumentative, slow-paced Act II set on a Mount Olympus that resembles a cruise liner. He does some modest singing in the Hades scene, with a lot more barking. The haphazardly photographed choreography includes a cute policewomen's number and a formulaic cancan. Andreas Reinhardt's stage and costume designs are not photogenic.
Deutsche Oper Berlin in those days was a company of excellent, committed singers. Tenors Grobe and Shirley are fine but underutilized, and Migenes — though hardening her tone for misguided comic effect — tosses off fioriture with a casual air. Smaller roles are ably performed (Janis Martin as Diana, for instance). Conducting a composite of the 1858 and 1874 editions of the score, Jesús López-Cobos keeps a tight rein on the solid chorus and orchestra, missing some opportunities for variety, elasticity and lightness.
DAVID J. BAKER
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