Madison Opera: The purpose is to have fun

Orpheus In The Underworld

Kathryn Smith, general director of Madison Opera, put things into perspective as she introduced weekend performances of “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

“At a time when the challenges grow greater every day, it is nice to have a time when the only purpose is to have fun.”

“Orpheus” is about as much fun as the opera has ever presented on one stage.

Or, at least, this production, first staged in 1858 by Jacques Offenbach, is fun, two hours of nonstop laughter. Smith, in her pre-performance lecture, also noted some 70 operas have been written about Orpheus and Euridice.

The strange thing is the whole story is supposed to be a tragedy. Orpheus, a godly musician, marries Euridice, the love of his life, but she is bitten by a snake and descends to the underworld. Orpheus follows her down and convinces Hades, god of Hell, to let her go. Hades agrees, but conditions the release by saying if either looks back, the deal is off. Just as they reach the sunlight, Orpheus looks back and Euridice disappears.

That is not the story of this opera.

As the story begins, Orpheus and Euridice are unhappily married and Euridice is having an affair with Pluto, Lord of the Underworld. In the MSO production, this all takes place in seemingly 1950s ranch-style America. Eurydice is, indeed, bitten by a snake, which makes Orpheus very happy.

Christian Sanders sings the role of Orpheus and Jasmine Habersham the role of Eurydice. All humor aside, Habersham has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve heard in Madison and would have rocked the audience had she been alone in a studio recital.

As I said, Orpheus is happy to see her go, but the Offenbach opera also calls for a character named “Public Opinion,” sung by Laurel Semerdjian.

Public Opinion convinces Orpheus to go after the bride he doesn’t want and who, in turn, finds him the most boring person this side of Hades. The opera has three “Tableaus” and that was the first one. The second takes place on Mount Olympus and has virtually nothing to do with the main story. It does feature a lot of bored gods and goddesses, including Mercury, sung by Tyrese Byrd, who roller skates across the stage.

And the third and fourth tableaus take place in Hades, where Eurydice is ignored by Pluto, seduced by Jupiter – who is transformed into a fly – rescued by Orpheus, then looks back and returns to Hades where she becomes a bacchante, meaning she falls for Bacchus and the party goes on.

Which is not really the way the Greek myth tells the story but was really a lot of fun.

It was a perfect respite from the news of wars and pandemics, although, to be honest, Smith first scheduled the opera for 2020 and wasn’t able to compete with COVID-19 until last week.