‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ Hits High (and Low) Notes

The phrase ‘student opera’ is one that hardly inspires confidence in the ordinary theatre-goer. I have had the great misfortune of attending a number of terrible professional operas, which do a disservice to an already dwindling genre. Thus, upon learning that the Opera Society would be putting on Orpheus in the Underworld, I was skeptical.

Nonetheless, on Monday the 5th of March, I arrived at the Byre armed with a sense of optimism and a double vodka soda. The curtain rose to reveal a shoddily constructed backdrop, which would have been better suited for a luau party than any opera. I braced myself for what was sure to be a painful evening.

Luckily, I was wrong.

There were certainly moments in which the cast seemed to struggle beneath the weight of their undertaking. The first act failed to take off, bogged down by a series of missed notes and uncertain staging. The principle characters seemed rather charmless, and lacked any of the necessary chemistry to convince us of their contempt for one another. The satire in Orpheus derives from converting the passionate love of Orpheus and Eurydice into a passionate hate. In this rendition, the mood between the two leads seemed lukewarm at best.

However, the second act soared to unexpected heights, and carried the rest of the show with it. It was here, in the court of Olympus, that Orpheus seemed to find its footing. Andrew Mundy stole the show as a smug, supercilious Jupiter. Mundy’s excellent physical comedy matched with superb comic timing was a thrill to watch. The back-and-forth between Jupiter and his restless family accelerated the pace of the show and had the audience in stitches. The culmination of the second act, with the rallying cry of “to Hell with everyone”, was the undeniable high point of the show, and simply an excellent bit of theatre.

To emphasize the brilliance of this act, it is worth noting that after the curtain closed, a woman in the audience called out: “More! How does it end?” before her husband gently reminded her that the show was indeed three parts.

While the third act was less compelling, the show had already won the audience’s favor. The wobbly Can-Can and anti-climatic climax earned appreciative laughs, and the final reprise was met with resounding applause. With easy colloquialisms and clever references to Raisin Sunday, Orpheus managed to prove the relevance of the opera to even the most cynical St Andrews audience.

The Opera Society clearly has a few stars among its numbers. Katherine Gunya delivered an excellent vocal performance as Calliope, the conniving mother who unfortunately disappears for most of the show. Oliver Linehan was delightful as Mercury, whose mere appearance sparked uproarious laughter.  Other memorable performances include Andrew Johnston as the suave Pluto, with ridiculous red horns that represent the very best of the opera’s tongue-and-cheek humor.

Although not the most refined of performances, ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ had a great deal of charm. It certainly triumphed as a comedy, even while stumbling as an opera. The show overcame the Herculean task of making its audience fall in love, and as we poured from the theatre that evening, more than a few of us turned back for one last look.



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