Armand French Opera: Orphée aux Enfers

Event Information

French Theatre

Event Type:

Record Information


Last Updated:
4 November 2015

Performance Date(s) and Time(s)

17 Jan 1867, Evening

Performers and/or Works Performed

aka Orpheus in the Underworld; Orpheus in der Unterwelt; Orphee aux enfers
Composer(s): Offenbach
Text Author: Halévy, Crémieux
Participants:  Armand French Opera;  Jean Vert (role: John Styx);  Paul de Surmont (role: Pluto);  M. Kerkel (role: Jupiter);  Elvira Naddie (role: Diana);  Johann Armand [tenor, director] (role: Orpheus);  Monsieur Wilhelm [vocal];  Jeanne Laurentis (role: Eurydice)


Review: New York Post, 19 January 1862.

“This week has been a prosperous one for the opera – French, English and German. The attendance at the French Theatre on Thursday evening must have been cheering to the excellent artists, whose merits so far have been poorly rewarded. We trust that it was an omen of change in the current of their fortunes.”

Announcement: New York Post, 16 January 1867.

“The partial failure of our usual allowance of Italian opera the present season has been compensated by the French opera, which is more of a novelty, and at least equally enjoyable. The latter should certainly gain ground, for there are thousands of our people who understand the French language more or less thoroughly, while scarcely any Americans know anything of Italian. Besides this, the French school of acting is far superior to the Italian, and is well represented by the company now performing at the French Theatre. To-morrow night this company will give one of the most famous of Offenbach’s operas, his ‘Orphée aux Enfers.’ The production of such an opera is an event of more than ordinary importance, dramatically and musically speaking, and should call out a large audience.”

Advertisement: New York Herald, 17 January 1867.
Advertisement: New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, 17 January 1867.
Review: New York Herald, 18 January 1867, 5.

“Offenbach’s laughable extravagant opera, Orphée aux Enfers, drew a very large and very select audience to the French theatre last night. There were but few redeeming qualities in the representation, even taking into account its being the first attempt. Many of the characters seemed not to have studied their parts at all, and the dresses and scenery were in some instances strange at variance with the ideas of the librettist. The piece was manifestly put on the stage in a hurried, careless manner and we hope that more care will be taken with the second representation. Mlles. Laurentis and Naddie and MM. Surmont, Vert and Wilhelm sang very well. We have not space to speak in detail of the many gems of this charming opera, or point out the many defects last night which are mentioned above.”

Review: New-Yorker Musik-Zeitung, 21 January 1867, 392.

“The performance reminded of ‘German Suburb Theater,’ which means it was of low quality. The current taste for a ‘lack of costume’ was satisfied; however the lack of scenery and of talent was a painful experience; especially when one female singer sang continuously ½ note below the orchestra. We have never heard anything greater in ‘permanent off-pitch singing’. Except for Naddie’s singing, the performance was terrible.”

Review: New-York Daily Tribune, 22 January 1867.

“The French opera, now struggling into success at the Theâtré [sic] Francais, deserves grateful encouragement for its capital production of Orphée aux Enfers, not to speak of other lyrical refreshments, like Thomas’s Cadi and Offenbach’s burlesque. It is to the interest of music and comedy alike that Offenbach’s Orphean master-piece should hold its carnival season of burlesque so, in advance of its next performance, some account of the humor which he has set fiddling, singing, and dancing, from Olympus to Hades, may not be uninteresting.

Orpheus is a polite burlesque—that is to say, it is droll and French; yet it is anything but tame. That Offenbach has lavished such a wealth of fancy, and an originality and culture more than merely appreciative, upon musical travesty may seem a strange want of economy in the application of talents; but it requires just such genius as his to show us what actual burlesque in music should be, and probably nothing of M. Offenbach’s can be so good as his gayety and mock-pathos. He is as light and fantastic as Terpsichore can desire; his drollery is keen and delicate—too lively to be ever caught asleep in its affected gravity. In a word, Offenbach’s lyrical burlesque is a fine art. Though the composer sets out with the avowed purpose of trifling with the genius of the great Gluck and the majesty of the mythological Jove, it would be hard to find that he is trivial in any strict sense of music or merit. To take such liberties with the gods of music as does M. Offenbach in his Hadean extravaganza presupposes that he is not too distant a relative of theirs—that he knows them familiarly enough to make fun of them. So Offenbach’s Orephus in Hell is a merry, left-handed tribute to the genius of the composer of Orpheus and Eurydice—the immortal Gluck.

The family of the burlesque are the gods and goddesses, with unimportant exceptions; then Public Opinion, a feminine friend of Orpheus; then Orpheus, who is a bad fiddler; and Eurydice, a scolding wife. The scene varies from the sleep of gods on Olympus to the wake of demons elsewhere. Public Opinion recites a droll prologue, wherein it is said, in confidence, that the ancient chorus was employed to explain to people what they knew in advance, when they were intelligent. In the opening scene, Eurydice enters gathering flowers, and is joined by Orpheus who plays a favorite phrase of Gluck. Then ensues a comic dialogue, a duet, and a boisterous ensemble, in which the termagant Eurydice refuses to listen to Orpheus’s music, protesting, with obstreperous vigor, that it is frightful, Orpheus maintaining with enthusiasm that it is delicious. The latter has begged in fain that his cara sposa will listen to his latest concerto.

                                   C’est le comble de l’art

                                   Il dure une heure un quart.

‘It is the height of art—it lasts an hour and a quarter.’ In the person of Eurydice, the handsome Mdlle Laurentis sings with charming good taste, and M. Armand as Orpheus acquits himself creditably. In the fourth scene Aristeus announces himself as an Arcadian shepherd and manufacturer of honey, and sings an air in the style of Gluck. He finally exhibits himself in the character of Pluto, bearing off the unresisting Eurydice—too glad to escape from her husband, the violinist. She sings a beautiful death song, and descends into Hades with Pluto, who is represented by M. de Surmont. Orpheus appears overwhelmed with joy at his good luck.

In the second tableau occurs the song of the sleeping gods; suggestive and imaginative, but in no wise serious:

                                    ‘Let us sleep, so our sleep

                                    Should never end

                                    As the only happiness, in fact,

                                    In our Olympus is to sleep.

                                    Ron, ron, ron.’

It is a hint of the ideal, brief as clever—drowsy, rocking music, as that of a cradle-song in the clouds, with all the enfans [sic] terrible of Olympus snoring.

Here enters Morpheus, shaking poppy incense over the noses of the gods. Cupid follows—a celestial wasp, making good use of his sting. Then comes Dame Venus, with music. Jupiter suddenly wakes up to an instrumental effect; Diana (Mdlle. Naddi) approaches, and pathetically laments the disappearance of her Acteon, to an absurd refrain. Juno, jealous of Eurydice, quarrels with her henpecked husband, but is at last reconciled in the following bit of mock-romantic dialogue:

            Juno. Say, dost thou not deceive me, Ernest?

            Jupiter. No, Bublelie!

Pluto enters on the scene, escorted by three little demons, with preternaturally swelled heads, and physiognomies expressive of boundless idiocy. Pluto twits Jupiter with his amorous peccadillos; the gods in chorus protest against the fastidious regime of nectar and ambrosia; and the scene concludes with hilarious rondeau, in which the amours of Jupiter with Alemena, Danae, and the rest are dashingly discoursed amid the laughter of the gods. At the shock of these revelations Juno faints in the arms of Pluto. Jupiter expostulates, calling him bad names, and Pluto responds, in great trouble, ‘Do not finish, but take my wife. She cramps me!’ Jupiter is acted with an experienced and excellent sense of the burlesque by M. Kerkel.

The third tableau brings in John Styx, a sort of doorkeeper to hell, who is continually intoxicated with bottled Lethean water. He makes maudlin love to Eurydice, and with the voice of M. Vert sings ‘The King of Boetia,’ a song in the quaintest style and one of the very best characterized morceaux of the whole opera. Subsequently happens the most amusing scene of the opera—Jupiter in the metamorphosis of a big fly wooing Eurydice, who endeavors to catch him, while in the well-developed person of M. Kerkel, he is supposed to wing his way from wall to wall. A most ridiculous but exquisite ensemble winds up the scene—Eurydice singing and Jupiter buzzing their several parts with indescribable effect. Jupiter is at last caught, and confesses himself a happy insect.

In the fourth tableau Eurydice is dressed as a bar-chante, and among the gods in Hades. The opening chorus herein, and particularly the hymn to Bacchus by Eurydice, ‘J’ai vu le dieu Bacchus,’ are admirable. Orpheus, impelled and supported by Public Opinion, comes to seek his wife, much against his will. Jupiter consents to restore her if Orpheus will journey back toward the Styx without looking behind. Public Opinion insists that Orpheus, in spite of himself, shall not look back at his wife; but Jupiter, with sinister aim, recalls him by a thunderbolt. Thus the King of Gods retains Eurydice, and the enraptured musician vows that this conclusion enchants him. The most brilliant vocalization of the opera is here introduced with exquisite taste by Mdlle. Naddi in the part of Diana. It is high-flying, high flowering invitation to the galop infernal:                            

                                    Ce bal est original,

                                    D’un gallop infernal!

                                    Donnons tous le signal;

                                    Vive le gallop infernal!

Thus preluded, begins the celebrated dance finale, and gods and goddesses, inspired with the champagne humor of Hades mixed with Elysium, go whirling round to the Orphean fiddle-playing of M. Offenbach. Of course, we are pleased with all the mirth of music, which is a carnival spirit put into opera. We hope, too, that its success will induce the production of more of Offenbach’s best pieces, with other lights of the Parisian opera comique, at which he presides as director as well as composer."

Review: Dwight's Journal of Music, 02 February 1867, 392.

“…the performance of the opera was partly amusing, partly an insult to the public. The audience, which had been attracted by the name of the opera as well as by recollections of its performance in Paris, was very large, and every seat was taken. But the curtain did not go up, and one of the singers stepped before it and excused the management on account of the sudden indisposition of one of the singers, which would be removed, however, in a few minutes. We should have been much pleased if this announcement had not proved true, since the entire performance gave just cause for derisive laughter and disgust. We believe that the opera was given without the slightest rehearsal. To say that the orchestra was bad is mild. The chorus sang in German. The person, who had the hardihood to appear in the part of Venus, was accompanied by loud laughter throughout her little chanson; the scenery was wretched; the Olympus was represented by a drawing-room; in short, the performance surpassed all ideas which mortal man can have of a farce. If it was not hissed, and the actors and singers were not driven from the scene, this is owing to the great forbearance of the public. After the performance of this opera, a dispute arose between the artist, which led to the happy dissolution of their contract with each other, and thus endeth the second attempt at giving French opera without a proper management.”