When Nicholas Muni was asked to create a new production of Orphée aux Enfers, a comic operetta by Jacques Offenbach, for the Berlin Opera Academy his initial reaction was not very enthusiastic because the few times he had seen it onstage, he found it largely unmemorable (aside from the wonderful and justly famous “Can-can”) and lacking in a strong dramaturgy, almost to the point of confusion.
One of the challenges Nic Muni finds in this piece is that “when it was created, the audience knew the mythological legend of Orpheus and Eurydice very well. In addition, they were generally very well versed in Greek and Roman mythology.”
“The piece Offenbach wrote, of course, lampoons the original legend as well as the Gods in general. It is also a critique of conservative, bourgeois social values—mostly represented by the character Public Opinion. As a topsy-turvy version of the classic myth, and precisely because the audience knew the original material so well, it was automatically very funny.”
In our day, Nicholas Muni contends that general knowledge of the original myth is practically non-existent, so most contemporary productions use a very broad or cartoonish approach, with spectacular visual effects, flamboyant costuming and outlandish wigs and make-up. These effects, as wonderful as they may or may not be, get monotonous very quickly because something is missing: the tension at the center of the piece.
According to Nicholas Muni, “what makes comedy work is the intense and serious desperation of the characters, combined with a wackiness or flamboyance which keeps the whole thing light as a feather. The more desperately and urgently each character pursues their goals, the more extreme their behavior can be, in an organic way, and the more comic tension there is. When all of this is done with a very light touch and when the pacing is lightning fast, the result is something truly funny— because it sits on the razor’s edge of becoming a tragedy—or at least a drama.”
There are several forces at work in this piece that clash and create the dramatic, or comic, tension. First, Public Opinion is furious at how society has neglected the great classics, in particular the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and she is hell-bent on seeing that the audience is bowled over by the beauty of this legend to the point that each person in the audience will finally appreciate its value—and a cultural renaissance will occur. She wants the story told properly, according to the original legend.
As a foil to this effort, the god Bacchus is hell bent on liberating the world population by promoting fantasy and encouraging each character in the piece to “let go” and follow their impulses to the maximum. Intoxication and hedonistic pleasure is his most successful tool in achieving this goal and Eurydice is his greatest adherent. One of the biggest changes Nicholas Muni made in his version of the piece is to expand the presence of Public Opinion and Bacchus to keep this central conflict in focus at all times, by keeping these two character onstage for most of the piece. In fact, it is Bacchus (instead of Jupiter) who, in this new version by Nic Muni, transforms Eurydice into a Bacchante at the end of the piece.
Nicholas Muni considers Eurydice the central character in the piece. “She outgrows each relationship in which she is involved, as her fantasy life cannot be constrained. She divorces Orpheus, grows bored with Pluto, rejects Jupiter in favor of a firefly and finally seeks consolation in Bacchus, who transforms her into a Bacchante.”
In a final twist, after becoming a Bacchante, Eurydice ends up killing and/or terrifying all the characters in the piece, leaving her alone and triumphant onstage.