Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 comic operetta “Orphée aux enfers” is (a) an uproarious parody of Greek mythology in general and Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” in particular, (b) the source of the tune that defines the cancan, (c) scandalously underperformed, (d) all of the above. The correct answer is, yes, (d), and never mind that the riotous “galop infernal” that closes the bacchanalian orgy wasn’t actually written as cancan music. Offenbach’s forerunner to the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas is devilishly clever, and in Boston Opera Collaborative’s free English-language version, “Orpheus in the Underworld,” at the Strand Theatre through Sunday, everyone has a hell of a good time.
In the Greek myth, Orpheus descends into Hades in a vain attempt to bring his beloved Eurydice back to life. Offenbach’s Orpheus and Eurydice are unhappily married; he’s fooling around with a nymph and she’s having an affair with a shepherd, Aristaeus, who’s actually Pluto in disguise. Orpheus and Pluto arrange for Eurydice to be bitten by a snake, but when she gets to Hades, she discovers hell isn’t as much fun as she expected. Orpheus, prodded by Public Opinion (who acts as the operetta’s narrator), goes after her, and the gods on Mount Olympus, bored with nectar and ambrosia, also show up, hoping to party down under.
Boston Opera Collaborative has done some updating. Public Opinion (Christina English) operates from a radio studio on the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. Orpheus Stradivarius Kominski (Brendan P. Buckley) is a violinist and composer; Aristeus Shepherd (Jason Connell) is a jazz saxophonist at the Cornfield Club. Offenbach’s conceit of having Greek gods and mythological figures act like ordinary people loses something when it’s moved to the 21st century (where it no longer make sense that Orpheus can’t divorce Eurydice because it would damage his professional career), and it loses a little more when the acting is as broad as it is here under stage director David Gram. Steven Lacosse’s English translation limps, and the English surtitles are washed out by the lighting more often than not.
Still, it’s hard not to love a production in which Orpheus’s girlfriend, Maquilla (Erika Mitchell), shoots Eurydice and then ditches the murder weapon with the conductor (Maria Sensi Sellner). Or in which the men form a kick line to do the cancan. Everybody sings well. Lindsay Conrad is a vivacious, voluptuous Eurydice, Buckley a hangdog Orpheus, Justin Hicks an obtusely lustful Jupiter who, in the operetta’s most hilarious sequence, appears as a fly to snare Eurydice for himself. English, with her schoolmarm glasses, is a prim and proper Public Opinion who, in the end, lets down her hair to boogie with Connell’s hipster Pluto. The orchestra, under Sellner, is sterling, and so is the chorus of Olympian deities singing “To arms” (with allusions to the “Marseillaise”) and demanding the right to go to hell. The Devil, it seems, really does have all the best tunes.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at