Anne Manson




MUSIC REVIEW; A U.P.S. Man Joins Offenbach's Gods and Goddesses


November 18, 2006

It is hard to imagine that Jacques Offenbach wrote ''Orphée aux Enfers'' with future greatness in mind. There is an element of haste in this jolly hit-and-run attack on ''Bulfinch's Mythology.'' Crowded, cluttered and panting with hyperactivity, the plotline of this ''opéra bouffon'' probably had even more zip in the mid-1850s, when it was aimed at an audience eager to avenge itself on the tedious childhood hours spent studying ancient gods and goddesses.

And there they all were at the Juilliard Opera Center's revival on Wednesday night. I counted 11 top-shelf mythological figures onstage at the end of Act II, being made fools of and making fools of themselves in the best Parisian manner. The tragic and mysterious doings of men and gods in Hades sit lightly on Offenbach's updates of classical sexual predation, intrigue and jealousy. We get a lot of the humor still, but I suspect that many inside jokes died with their times.

Still there is the music: beautifully made, relentlessly cheerful, reluctantly serious. Posterity has cherry-picked some of it; indeed, the dance music has become a deathless buzzword for vigorous French gaiety. Without ''Tales of Hoffmann'' it would be harder to recognize what a profoundly gifted composer Offenbach really was. In ''Orphée'' you have to scrape away the surface froth, or better yet, wait for the powerful ensemble number that begins Act IV's revels on the River Styx.

John Pascoe's production halfheartedly updates an update. Characters become current icons. Eurydice (Brenda Rae) is asked to do yet another operatic Marilyn Monroe impression, complete with air-conditioned pleated white skirt. Cupidon (the excellent Isabel Leonard) is a ducktailed hipster; Mercure (Michael Kelly) a U.P.S. man; L'Opinion Publique (Ronnita Miller) an Oprah Winfrey knockoff. Orphée and Eurydice are cornfield Midwesterners who end up in a fiery red nightclub.

And so on. That the impersonations do not match up or fit together is unimportant, given the near-incoherence of the original. But they do show a rather tired imagination looking at America through a haze of clichés.

The good news is the splendid energies of these young singers and dancers, all generated from Anne Manson's well-organized and pointed conducting. Her pit orchestra played with a unified resonance I am not used to hearing from these Juilliard ensembles of would-be superstars.

Ms. Rae does very well, and as her young soprano grows, the coloratura will come more comfortably. Jeffrey Behrens is a busy and effective Pluto. Museop Kim's Jupiter, got up in dress uniform like Czar Nicholas, sings well and is light on his feet. Tim Fallon's light, pleasant tenor does well by the part of Orphée. The cast is big and makes room for lots of participants, who all would be listed here if space permitted. Jeanne Slater choreographed the winning dance numbers.

The Peter Jay Sharp Theater, perhaps the most successful space in all of Lincoln Center, is ideal for an opera like this.

''Orphée aux Enfers'' will be performed tomorrow at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 155 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center; (212) 769-7406.