Composer Jacques Offenbach loved to make fun of French nobles and officials in the mid-1800s, and his insight into pretense, pomposity and hypocrisy still ring true today in hilarious ways.
That’s why the laughs keep coming in the Bel Cantanti Opera Company’s production of Offenbach’s 1858 operetta, “Orpheus in the Underworld” (“Orphée aux Enfers”).
“It takes a very satirical view on morality,” said Katarina Souvorova, a Russian-born vocal coach at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who founded Bel Cantanti in 2003.
“The music is terrific,” she said about the training it offers to aspiring opera singers and Offenbach’s rousing “galop” at the end that later become associated with the exuberant can-can at the Moulin Rouge.
“Orpheus in the Underworld” will run Friday and Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville and on Oct. 6 at the Randolph Road Theater in Silver Spring.
The dialogue is spoken in English, and the lyrics are sung in French with English subtitles projected on a screen.
“It’s important for students to get the experience, and important to open the doors for them,” said Souvorova, who first presented “Orpheus in the Underworld” in June at Catholic University.
She said she is looking for venues in Montgomery County to present future summer season productions, which are a chance for students to perform and also work with professionals.
“I wanted a comedy, and it’s a very good ensemble opera — there are smaller roles for gods and goddesses,” said Souvorova.
She and director Guillaume Tournaire adapted Offenbach’s two-act version of his four-act operetta and added back in some arias to give the performers more chances to sing.
“Euridice hits a high E — it’s the role every soprano dreams about,” she said.
First presented by Offenbach in 1858 and now rarely performed, it is considered the first European operetta, and it predates the Gilbert and Sullivan shows that debuted decades later in London.
Offenbach’s operetta is based on Christoph von Gluck’s serious 1762 opera “Orfeo ed Euridice,” which tells the story of Orpheus, a beguiling musician, who descends into hell to retrieve his wife Euridice but loses her after disobeying an order not to look back at her.
Offenbach set his comedic version to the mid-1800s and instead took “a very satirical view on morality,” Souvorova said.
Orpheus and Euridice are supposed to love each other, but she hates his violin playing and instead loves a shepherd who is really Pluto, while Orpheus is in hot pursuit of a nymph.
A character named Public Opinion steps in from time to time to remind Orpheus about social propriety, which of course falls on deaf ears.
“You can do anything as long as you don’t get talked about,” Tournaire said.
Meanwhile the gods — including Diana, Mercury, Venus and Mars — behave no better than he mortals, carousing and philandering as if there were no tomorrow.
“They’re bored with nectar and ambrosia ... they’re all so bored with the perfect life,” said Souvorova, which is why they follow Jupiter to the underworld to find Euridice, who captures his fancy.
“Jupiter is supposed to be the boss, the king, but actually he’s a very vain person,” said Souvorova.
“Nobody’s perfect, and there are no good or bad characters,” she said.
Tournaire, who grew up in New Orleans bilingual, translated the French libretto into English, striving to capture the humor rooted in Offenbach’s French.
The operetta is also full of nuance and allusion, he said. Hidden, for example, in a section about the revolt of the gods to take off for the underworld, there are hints of “La Marseillaise.”
“Offenbach was like Mozart — if someone told him not to do something, he’d do it,” laughed Tournaire.
The music is a challenge, and so is the acting and the need for comic timing, he said.
“I’m glad it’s comedic, because it give you a chance to work on the acting part,” said Jenna Babyak, a master’s student in voice at Catholic University, who sings the part of Jupiter’s wife, Juno.
“It’s very rapid French,” she said about her first French opera. “And the range of voices is pretty large — it’s a challenge to move that voice.”
Babyak is also choreographing the dance numbers, working the Charleston and the Lindy Hop into the revelries of the gods.
“The music is very lighthearted and fun,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a party.”
And a party it is, ending on a happy note that includes the famous can-can tune.
“Gilbert and Sullivan were cheerful and witty, but they still had that Victorian reserve,” said Tournaire. “Offenbach doesn’t hold back — you jump and go out and dance!”