Joyous Fantasio

16 Dec

I don’t normally go up to London on a Sunday but the opportunity to hear a new Offenbach, particularly a British premiere was too important to miss.  And so I got on the train at 5.20 on 15th December to see the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Opera Rara present Offenbach’s Fantasio at the Royal Festival Hall.

The opera was a failure in Paris (though it was more of a success in Vienna) and then has been pretty much forgotten, with all its parts pretty much scattered.  Jean-Christophe Keck, as part of his campaign to complete Offenbach’s operas, has had the task of gathering an edition together and what we have is probably about as near as you can get to what was heard on the first night.

It’s based on a play by de Musset from the 1830s.  A marriage has been arranged between the Prince of Mantua and the Princess of Bavaria.  She is sad because her jester has died.  Fantasio, a student, hears her sing and sings back.  He disguises himself as the jester in order to meet her.  They fall in love.  Meanwhile, the Prince of Mantua has decided to swap costumes with his servant to find out whether or not she loves him.  This is a pretty disastrous ploy and Fantasio, to save the Princess, pulls the servant’s wig from his head.  He is imprisoned; the princess releases him and all ends happily.  There’s a strong anti-war sentiment which, from a German composer, might not have gone down that well in Paris in 1872.

Otherwise, it’s a gentle comdey which ought to have appealed to nineteenth century audiences – it could also have made a convincing early 20th century musical comedy.  I was reminded of Chabrier’s L’etoile (though it lacks the sheer surreal lunacy of that opera – and the music isn’t as good) as well as a rather nasty take on the Cinderella story.  It feels rather old-fashioned these days and it’s hard to see how the plot could readily take off, though perhaps Laurent Pelly or Martin Duncan might make something out of it.

The music, however, is rather wonderful.  It doesn’t have the sheer continuous brilliance of the more famous operettas or, indeed, of Hoffmann but it does deserve to be better known.  There is one absolute knock-out tune – a glorious waltz, first heard in the overture and then in the first act duet (and the third) for Fantasio and the Princess.  Beyond that there are attractive ballads, a glorious quintet which, you feel, Bizet must have known for Carmen, a really strong finale to Act II and some fiendish coloratura for the princess.  The music has echoes of Hoffmann and is in the vein of Robinson Crusoe rather than the operettas and is none the worse for that.  It may not be vintage Offenbach but it deserves an occasional outing.

Mark Elder conducted.  Has he done any Offenbach since the 1980s Orpheus at ENO?  I enjoyed the precision of his conducting and the way in which he let the tunes unfold.  Was it a bit too drilled, a bit too cautious?  There were odd times when I felt that, perhaps, a bit more relaxation and a little more speed (particularly in some of the entr’actes) might have helped.  But this was a minor cavil for someone who demonstrated the considerable musical strengths of the work.  He played a small, speaking part as well and had great fun with that, too  – as did we.  You don’t associate the OAE with this sort of music but there was some really lovely playing and intelligent accompaniment of the singers.

He had an excellent cast.  Sarah Connolly was ideal casting as Fantasio.  She doesn’t seem able to do anything wrong at the moment and I loved her stylish, gorgeous singing and witty acting.  She caught the wit and integrity of the character.  Brenda Rae was a late replacement as the Princess but showed no sign of this – her coloratura was outstanding and she worthily partnered Connolly in their duets.

Russell Braun as the Prince and Robert Murray as his servant had lesser roles but gave very strong support, as did Brindley Sherratt, Neal Davies and Victoria Simmonds.  The Opera Rara chorus did very well indeed.

I found myself smiling happily through most of this.  Offenbach fans won’t hesitate to buy the CD and they should be in for a treat. Other admirers of French music should enjoy it too.  A staging would be nice, if unlikely, and it reminded me also of how nice it would be to see decent stagings of Les Brigands, Robinson Crusoe, Bluebeard and Grande Duchesse before too long.

Only one complaint.  The programme and the advance information from the RFH suggested this would be over by 9.15.  We started slightly late and the interval last 10 minutes long than planned, but the performance didn’t end until about 9.50 – surely someone would have noticed this beforehand?

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