It’s a riot: Orpheus in the Underworld – Opera Australia

Opera Australia’s Orpheus in the Underworld proves that sometimes the best laughs are the cheapest.

When Todd McKenney strikes John Travolta’s famous Saturday Night Fever pose as Pluto, lord of the underworld, you know you’re not in for a night of high-brow humour. It’s just as clear when Rachelle Durkin brandishes a snake and asks the audience, “Does my asp look big in this?”

Todd McKenney in Orpheus in the Underworld
Todd McKenney in Orpheus in the Underworld. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathan Biggins and Phil Scott’s new version of Orpheus in the Underworld is packed full of gags that range from the laugh-out-loud hilarious to those that fly just under the radar for most of the audience. It’s certainly not what you’d call intellectual humour, though it’s fairly clever and what you’d expect from the team behind the Wharf Revue with references from Bob Katter to television show ‘The Block’.

It’s a far cry from Offenbach’s original production first performed in 1858, but it features the same plot, the same style of social humour and all the same music, including the rousing Galop Infernal (better known as the Can-Can).

This new version is performed by a cast well and truly equipped to tackle the material. Musical theatre stalwart Todd McKenney delivers a confident, charismatic and finely tuned performance, but the show belongs to Rachelle Durkin as Eurydice.

Durkin has a crystalline soprano with a strong and secure coloratura register, but it’s her acting and comic timing that shines. If she ever felt the need to quit singing, she could have a great career as a comedienne.

Mitchell Butel and Rachelle Durkin
Mitchell Butel and Rachelle Durkin in Orpheus in the Underworld. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Orpheus is a massive ensemble piece, so there’s not really space to mention every great performance, but there’s truly not a weak link. Mitchell Butel has a brief, but memorable appearance as John Styx, Stephen Smith is endearing as Mercury and Suzanne Johnston is suitably snooty as Public Opinion. The rest of the cast are amongst the best operatic singers in Australia. It’s a joy to watch the way they’ve given themselves so fully and freely to the silliness of the piece.

It’s an attitude that has spread to the orchestra and conductor Andrew Greene, who probably aren’t all that used to having the audience clapping along to the score, but seem to relish the enthusiasm all the same.

The main reason that this production works is because it is genuinely hilarious. It’s rare for comedy in opera or operetta to be quite so outrageous. You get to see a fairly explicit ‘courting’ scene between a fly and a beautiful woman, as well as the ‘magistrates from hell’, who are basically three large-ish men in lingerie, heels and suspenders.

If you imagine somebody handed the reigns of Offenbach’s masterpiece to the Monty Python crew, you’ll have some kind of an idea about what to expect. Add to that the camp sensibility of original director Ignatius Jones, and you’ve got a glitzy production to rival anything programmed for this year’s Mardi Gras.

The symbol of ancient Greek theatre is two masks, one famously representing comedy and the other tragedy. It’s fantastic to see Opera Australia giving due prominence to this shameless laugh-fest with its roots firmly in an ancient Greek legend. It’s a riot.

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