Sunday, 28 September 2014

Offenbach's Fantasio

Offenbach - Fantasio
Offenbach Fantasio; Sarah Connolly, Brenda Rae, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder; Opera Rara
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 13 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Charming and enlightening account of Offenbach's late, romantic operetta

Offenbach's Fantasio can be seen as something of a missing link, coming as it does between his two romantic operas, Die Rheinnixen (1864) and Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1880). The opera has also been something of a missing link as regards its score and parts as following the work's lack of success at its 1872 premiere there has been no definitive edition and this new Opera Rara recording is based on a new edition by Jean-Christophe Keck which has required quite some detective work. Fantasio is based on a play by Alfred de Musset and, written in 1872 after the Franco-Prussian war, it is a long way from the sparky operattas Offenbach is best known for. 

Whilst not a romantic opera, it is far closer to what the French public of the 19th century would have understood as an opera comique, with spoken dialogue and a mixture of the serious and the comic. On this disc the title role is sung by Sarah Connolly, with Brenda Rae as Elsbeth, Brindley Sherratt as the King, Russell Braun as the Prince of Mantua, Robert Murray as Marinoni, Neal Davies as Sparck, Victoria Simmonds as Flamel, Aled Hall as Facio, Gavan Ring as Hartmann, Michael Burke as a penitent and Robert Anthony Gardiner as Max with Mark Elder conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Fantasio is, I think, a fragile work with a mixture of comedy and moonlit romance which might go badly wrong on stage. Here, recorded after concert performances (read Hilary's review of the concert on this blog), it is given with idiomatic dialogue and a secure feel for the style. The comic moments are comic and the romantic bits are romantic, the whole has an attractive feeling of sympathetic understanding from Mark Elder and all involved.

That said, the plot itself is profoundly slim. The King is planning to marry his daughter Elsbeth to the Prince of Mantua. She is depressed because her jester has died. Fantasio, who is a middle class student, impulsively decides to impersonate the jester and there follows a series of mistaken identities, some romantic and some comic. The Prince changes clothes with his aide-de-camp, to comic effect whilst Fantasio's impersonation of the jester leads to something of a romantic liaison with Elsbeth. Everything threatens to turn into war but Fantasio calms things down, though the piece ends on a strange note. The Prince goes home, without marrying Elsbeth. Fantasio is crowned king of fools, but Elsbeth does not want the key to her garden back. Their relationship is unresolved, and Offenbach seems to lose interest in it.

The tone of the piece can be judged by the way the Prince has a comic duet with Marinoni in act one, but in act two has a lovely solo in which he is wracked with self doubt about whether he will ever be loved for himself. And in the last act Marinoni has a curious set of couplets all about giving the Prince back his coat which are both funny and touching.  Similarly Fantasio and Elsbeth's scene later in act two goes from the lightly perky couplets to the more dramatic duo. It is clear that Offenbach was experimenting with exactly what an opera was, and this combination of comic and romantic is what makes the later Les Contes d'Hoffmann so fascinating.

Fantasio is performed with the spoken dialogue, given by the singers themselves (conductor Mark Elder and assistant conductor Nicholas Jenkins even get in on the act) and the results are stylish and convincing (the dialogue director was Agathe Melinand).

Performances are admirable throughout. Getting French light-opera right is a tricky business, and everyone here manages the serio/comic tight-rope wonderfully and everything is technically of a high order. Sarah Connolly makes a delightful hero, who is not really a hero at all. She brings weight to the part where needed, but is equally enticing in the lighter pieces. Connolly is beautifully partnered by Brenda Rae as the Princess Elsbeth. Rae, of course, has some elaborate twiddly bits but she must also sing to the moon with limpid tones, and does so beautifully.

The two make a lovely first couple. They have three duets, one in each act. The first is in fact an accidental duo, as the two sing without meeting, the second gets very romantic. The third is the most complex as Fantasio reveals that he is not the jester but the middle-class student who she heard in act one, and she can't quite admit she loves him. The results are fascinating and the height of romance in the 19th century manner. It is here that Offenbach gets closest to the delicate fragrance of Alfred de Musset's play and here Connolly and Rae respond with style, delicacy, charm and romance.

The remainder of the cast have a relatively smaller role to play, though Opera Rara has some superb casting. Russell Braun and Robert Murray make a wonderful pair as the Prince of Mantua and his aide-de-camp with a duo in which they swap clothes, which is Offenbach at his operetta sparkiest. Braun manages to be touching and musically stylish in the Prince's Strophes in act two whilst Murray makes Marinoni's operetta-ish Couplets in act three attractively stylish but with hint of something deeper.

No-one else gets a solo, but the act finales are all large scale, multi-section pieces; the act one finale lasts 10 minutes, the act two finale 12 minutes and the act three finale 7 minutes. These show Offenbach at his best and give everyone a little moment.

The opera has one or two interesting historical links. The first Fantasio was Celestine Galli-Marie who created the role of Carmen three years later. And in 1894, Ethel Smyth would compose a German-language version of the story. Smyth's Fantasio was premiered in Weimar in 1898 and was her first opera. The disc also includes two more historical items, things which Offenbach jettisoned before the first performance; the full version of Fantasio's opening number and a lovely Romance which it would certainly be a great shame to miss.

There is also a lovely, highly romantic overture and two entractes, which certainly give Elder and the orchestra a chance to show us a different side to Offenbach. These are lovely subtle pieces which respond to the gentler colours of the period orchestra and show a less brash Offenbach than we might sometimes expect.

Fantasio is a fascinating re-discovery which sheds light on Offenbach's experiments with more serious opera. But thankfully these performances are far more than a dry exercise in re-construction, Mark Elder, Sarah Connolly, Brenda Rae and the other performers give us a stylish and highly enjoyable romantic drama.

Jacques Offenbach (1819 - 1880) - Fantasio [139.08]
Fantasio - Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Elsbeth - Brenda Rae (soprano)
King - Brindley Sherratt (baritone)
Prince of Mantua - Russell Braun (baritone)
Marinoni - Robert Murray (tenor)
Sparck - Neal Davies (bass)
Flamel - Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano)
Facio - Aled Hall
Hartmann -Gavan Ring
Un Penitent - Michael Burke
Max - Robert Anthony Gardiner
Opera Rara Chorus (Renato Balsadonna chorus director)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, December 2013
Dialogue recorded at St Jude's Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb

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