Orpheus in the Underworld

Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), opéra bouffe (or opéra féerie in its revised version), is an operetta by Jacques Offenbach. The French text was written by Ludovic Halévy and later revised by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux.

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

This marked also the first time that Offenbach used Greek mythology as a backdrop for one of his buffooneries. The operetta is an irreverent parody and scathing satire on Gluck and his Orfeo ed Euridice and culminated in the risqué galop infernal (often copied, widely used as the background music for the Can-can dance, and erroneously called "Can-can") 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 French Second Empire.

In the eyes of Clément and Larousse 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. The piece was not immediately a hit, but critics' condemnation of the travesty, 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.

The Infernal Galop from Act II, Scene 2 is famous outside classical circles as the music for the "Can-can". Saint-Saëns borrowed the Galop, slowed it to a crawl and assigned it to the strings to represent the tortoise in The Carnival of the Animals.

Performance history

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 had 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.

The piece then played in German at the Stadt Theatre, on Broadway, beginning in March, 1861. Next, it had a run of 76 performances at Her Majesty's Theatre, in London, beginning on December 26, 1865, in an adaptation by J. R. Planché.

The four-act version, designated as an opéra féerie, was performed at the Théâtre de la Gaîté on 7 February 1874.

Sadler's Wells opera presented an English version by Geoffrey Dunn beginning on 16 May, 1960, and the revived D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performed the work in the 1990s.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, October 21, 1858,
(Conductor: - )
Cupidon (Cupid) soprano Coralie Geoffroy
Diane (Diana) soprano Chabert
Eurydice, wife of Orphée soprano Lise Tautin
John Styx baritone Bache
Junon (Juno) mezzo-soprano Enjalbert
Jupiter baritone Désiré
Public Opinion mezzo-soprano Marguerite Macé
Mars bass Floquet
Mercure (Mercury) tenor Jean-Paul
Minerve (Minerva) soprano Marie Cico
Morphée (Morpheus) tenor Marchand
Orphée (Orpheus), a musician tenor Tayau
Aristée (Aristaeus) - Pluton (Pluto) tenor Léonce
Vénus contralto Marie Garnier
Bacchus spoken Antognini
Cerbère (Cerberus) barked Tautin snr.
Caron Duvernoy


Note: Orpheus in the Underworld exists in several versions: Offenbach originally wrote it in a two-act form, then expanded it to four acts with ballet music when it proved popular. Several English translations add numbers from other operettas, a major translation replaces Public Opinion with Orpheus' mother, and so many translations exist as to make the selection of a version confusing.

This article lists only songs in the original two-act version (the four-act version is performed rarely and has the essentially the same plot), using the names given to them by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's 1994 CD. An additional song included on that CD from the four-act version ("A skip, a hop") is ignored for consistency.

Act 1

Scene 1: Near Thebes

We open with a melodrama (Introduction and Melodrame) in which Public Opinion explains who she is, setting herself up as the guardian of morality. She seeks to rework the story of 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, Aristaeus, who lives next door ("The Happy Bride Never Slumbers..."), and Orpheus is in love with Chloë, a shepherdess. When Orpheus mistakes Eurydice for her, everything comes out, and Eurydice insists they break the marriage off ("You've Gone Too Far!"). However Orpheus, fearing Public Opinion's reaction, torments her into keeping the scandal quiet using violin music, which she hates.

We now meet Aristaeus (who is, in fact, Pluto) keeping up his disguise by singing a pastoral song about those awful sheep ("Hail! My name's Aristaeus"). Since Pluto 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 Orpheus to kill Aristaeus, but is in fact a conspiracy between him and Pluto to kill her, so Pluto may have her. Pluto 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 ("My Death Appears Divinely Smiling"), 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 Orpheus until Public Opinion catches up with him, and threatens to ruin his violin teaching career unless he goes to rescue his wife. Orpheus reluctantly agrees ("The Hour has come!").

Scene 2: Olympus

The scene changes to Olympus, where the Gods sleep out of boredom ("Sleep on, sleep on"). Things look a bit more interesting for them when Diana returns and begins gossiping about Actaeon, her current love ("When Diana Leaves The Mountains"). 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 (Entrance of Pluto), leading them to revolt against horrid ambrosia, hideous nectar, and the sheer boredom of Olympus ("To arms, all god and minor deities!"). Jupiter's demands to know what is going on lead them to point out his hypocrisy at great length, describing - and poking fun of - all his mythological affairs ("When Jupy Feels The Inclination"). However, little further progress can be made before news of Orpheus' arrival forces the gods to get onto their best behaviour ("Here Comes Orpheus"). 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 ("We go, Below, We go").

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 the Beotians until he died. But if he had not died, he would still be king ("When I was King of the Beotians").1

Jupiter spots where Pluto 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 (The Fly Duet). Afterwards, he reveals himself to her, and promises to help her, largely because he wants her for himself.

1 Beotia is a part of Greece that Aristophanes fills with idiotic rural rubes - rather appropriate for this Styx.

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 ("Hail Pluto, Hail!"). Eurydice sneaks in disguised as a Bacchante (Hymn to Bacchus), but Jupiter's plan to sneak her out is interrupted by calls for a dance. Unfortunately, Jupiter can only dance minuets ("How the Minuet gain new vigor...") which everyone else finds boring and awful. 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.

Ominous violin music heralds the approach of Orpheus (Entrance of Orpheus and Public Opinion), but Jupiter has a plan, and promises to keep Eurydice away from him. As with the standard myth, Orpheus must not look back, or he'll lose Eurydice forever. Public Opinion keeps a close eye on him, to keep him from cheating ("A husband always is concerned..."), but Jupiter throws a lightning bolt, making him jump and look back, and so all ends happily, with a reprise of the Galop.

Musical numbers

Note: The names vary widely between translations. Consult the plot synopsis for more information on individual arias.

Act I

Scene 1

  • Introduction and Melodrame (Public Opinion)
  • Couplets, "Ah when a woman's heart is yearning (Eurydice)
  • Duet, "So you confess" (Orpheus, Eurydice)
  • Pastoral song, "Hail! My name's Aristaeus" (Aristaeus (Pluto))
  • Transformation (Aristaeus (Pluto) and Eurydice)
  • Couplets, "I thought that death would be more painful" (Eurydice)
  • Descent to the Underworld (Pluto and Eurydice)
  • Duet, "Come, come, come" (Public Opinion and Orpheus)

Scene 2

  • Entr'acte and Chorus, "We're fast asleep" (Chorus of Gods), Song, "When I go riding" (Diana)
  • Entrance of Pluto (Orchestra)
  • Revolution Chorus, "To arms, you gods and Demi-Gods" (Chorus, Pluto, Jupiter)
  • Couplets, "When you seduced the fair Alcmena" (Minerva, Diana, Cupid, Venus, Pluto, and Chorus)
  • Finale, Act I, "He is coming, how upsetting" (Pluto, Public Opinion, Orpheus, and Gods)

Act II

Scene 1

  • Entr'acte (Orchestra)
  • Couplets, "When I was King of the Beotians" (Styx)
  • Fly Duet, "I'm feeling all lovely and shivery" (Jupiter, Eurydice)

Scene 2

  • Infernal Chorus, "It's party time in Hell" (Chorus)
  • Hymn to Bacchus, "I saw him on a rock" (Eurydice, Chorus)
  • Minuet, "How I love to dance" (Jupiter).
  • Galop Infernal (Chorus)
  • Entrance of Orpheus and Public Opinion (Pluto, Eurydice, Jupiter, Public Opinion, Orpheus)
  • Finale, Act II "Look ahead and not at your wife" (Ensemble)

Titles of the numbers are from the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's 1994 production of the work, as given on the liner notes of their CD.

Selected recordings

The operetta has been recorded many times. There is a historic recording made in 1951 by René Leibowitz and the Paris Philharmonic available on compact disc (REGIS RRC 2063). Michel Plasson recorded the work with Mady Mesplé in 1978 (EMI CDS7496472), and in 1999 Marc Minkowski conducted the operetta in Lyon, with a strong cast including Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Véronique Gens, Patricia Petibon, and Ewa Podles (EMI 0724355672520).

Minkowski is also the conductor on a DVD released in 1997, again at Lyon with Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, as well as Yann Beuron and others in a production by Laurent Pelly (TDK DV-OPOAE).

Musical sample



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