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Orpheus in the underworld

The meaning of «orpheus in the underworld»

Orpheus in the Underworld[1] and Orpheus in Hell[2] are English names for Orphée aux enfers (French: [ɔʁfe oz‿ɑ̃fɛʁ]), a comic opera with music by Jacques Offenbach and words by Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy. It was first performed as a two-act "opéra bouffon" at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, on 21 October 1858, and was extensively revised and expanded in a four-act "opéra féerie" version, presented at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, Paris, on 7 February 1874.

The opera is a lampoon of the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this version Orpheus is not the son of Apollo but a rustic violin teacher. He is glad to be rid of his wife, Eurydice, when she is abducted by the god of the underworld. Orpheus has to be bullied by Public Opinion into trying to rescue Eurydice. The reprehensible conduct of the gods of Olympus in the opera was widely seen as a veiled satire of the court and government of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. Some critics expressed outrage at the librettists' disrespect for classic mythology and the composer's parody of Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice; others praised the piece highly.

Orphée aux enfers was Offenbach's first full-length opera. The original 1858 production became a box-office success, and ran well into the following year, rescuing Offenbach and his Bouffes company from financial difficulty. The 1874 revival broke records at the Gaîté's box-office. The work was frequently staged in France and internationally during the composer's lifetime and throughout the 20th century. It is his most often performed opera and continues to be revived in the 21st century.

In the last decade of the 19th century the Paris cabarets the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère adopted the music of the "Galop infernal" from the culminating scene of the opera to accompany the can-can, and ever since then the tune has been popularly associated with the dance.

Between 1855 and 1858 Offenbach presented more than two dozen one-act operettas, first at the Bouffes-Parisiens, Salle Lacaze, and then at the Bouffes-Parisiens, Salle Choiseul. The theatrical licensing laws then permitted him only four singers in any piece, and with such small casts, full-length works were out of the question.[3] In 1858 the licensing restrictions were relaxed, and Offenbach was free to go ahead with a two-act work that had been in his mind for some time. Two years earlier he had told his friend the writer Hector Crémieux that when he was musical director of the Comédie-Française in the early 1850s he swore revenge for the boredom he suffered from the posturings of mythical heroes and gods of Olympus in the plays presented there.[4] Cremieux and Ludovic Halévy sketched out a libretto for him lampooning such characters.[5][n 1] By 1858, when Offenbach was finally allowed a large enough cast to do the theme justice, Halévy was preoccupied with his work as a senior civil servant, and the final libretto was credited to Crémieux alone.[3][n 2] Most of the roles were written with popular members of the Bouffes company in mind, including Désiré, Léonce, Lise Tautin, and Henri Tayau as an Orphée who could actually play Orpheus's violin.[1][n 3]

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