Thursday 19 December 2013

Fantastic Fantasio

Fantasio: Brenda Rae and Sarah Connolly in rehearsal - credit Russell Duncan
Brenda Rae and Sarah Connolly
in rehearsal for Fantasio
credit Russell Duncan

Offenbach's Fantasio is one of his lost operas; now, as part of a project by Opera Rara to recover and record the opera there was a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall on 15 December, with a cast including Sarah Connolly, Brenda Rae, Russell Braun, Robert Murray, Neal Davies, Victoria Simmonds, Aled Hall and Gavan Ring, and Mark Elder conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Opera Rara Chorus.

In a brief history of Fantasio Jean-Christophe Keck describes why Fantasio was a flop at the time. Based on Alfred de Musset's 1834 play it appeared to be doomed. Musset himself had fallen out of popular favour and Offenbach’s reputation was affected by the recent Franco-Prussian War (1870-1). A lack of support from the co-director (Camille du Locle) of the Opéra-Comique meant that Fantasio closed after ten performances.

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) born in Deutz near Cologne studied at the Paris conservatoire (1833-7)1 and began playing cello at the Opéra-Comique (1849-55). During this time he began to write operettas which he called Bouffes Parisienes. Writing over 90 of these during the next 25 years including Orphée aux enfers (1858) and La belle Hélène (1864), his career culminated in the well-known Les contes d'Hoffmann (1877-80) which was produced only after his death.

As a medium, Opéra bouffe was highly influential, influencing the development of comic opera in England, Vienna and the US such as Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (1874) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas written in the 1870/80s.

While generally simple in form, rhythm, texture and harmony their appeal lies in their wit, satire, parody and farce and Fantasio is no different. It has thwarted love, mistaken identity, a fool, escape from prison, political mob scenes, and a strong anti-war stance. But putting on Fantasio has taken dedication and a research project.

Sir Mark Elder rehearsing Fantasio, credit Russell Duncan
Sir Mark Elder rehearsing Fantasio, credit Russell Duncan
All that remains of the original Paris version is an arrangement for voice and piano published in 1872 – the original music being lost probably in the fire which destroyed the Opéra-Comique in 1887. The version performed tonight by Opera Rara has been pieced together by Jean-Christophe Keck from scores preserved by the Offenbach family and versions kept in museums in London, Paris and Cologne. Even with this all this research a few pages were missing and have been re-orchestrated by Keck himself.

The role of Fantasio was originally written for a tenor but the departure of Victor Capoul to America and the insistence of Camile Du Locle made Offenbach rewrite the role for mezzo-soprano. Sarah Connolly performed admirably in this role. Her acting and lyrical singing made this impish character shine. The choice of Brenda Rae to fill the role of Elsbeth (La princesse) was perfect. Her voice blended beautifully with Sarah’s in their duets and on her own brought the opera to a halt at the end of her stunning ‘laughing’ solo as the audience went wild. 

Despite this being a concert performance all the cast members acted as well as if they were in a stage production. The singing was first rate all round, and having the orchestra on stage gave traditional opera goers a chance to see what goes on in the pit. Mark Elder not only conducted but joined in the singing with his own solos. Little touches such as sound effects added to the impression of a performed opera.

The men had less chance to shine than the ladies but made the most of their parts. Baritone Russell Braun gave the obnoxious prince, who is incapable of maintaining the clothes-swapping role he had planned with his servant Marinoni (Robert Murray), an insecure and lonely side. Similarly, half way through act three Marinoni has a strange solo singing about the pink coat that he has to return to his master as they swap clothes back. Presumably this solo was originally there to show off the tenor voice of whoever Offenbach had cast in the role. Here Murray made it his own, showing reluctance to hand back to the coat and return to his life as a servant. 

Neal Davies rehearsing Fantasio, credit Russell Duncan
Other mentions should go to Neal Davis as Sparck, Brindley Sherratt as Le Roi, Victoria Simmonds as Flamel, Aled Hall as Facio and Gavan Ring as Hartman who all performed magnificently. Plus the members of the chorus who stepped forward in the mob scenes.

The plot of Fantasio is a little weak towards the end. You want Fantasio to ride off into the sunset with Elsbeth but this does not happen. There is also no real explanation of why Elsbeth was originally in love with Saint Jean (the fool that Fantasio impersonates). Perhaps for Offenbach the main message was anti-war and once Fantasio had prevented the war between Bavaria and Mantua he did not care that much if the main protagonists completed their love scene or not.

As an experiment in resurrecting a forgotten opera Fantasio was a resounding success. I would really like to see this performed on stage somewhere with great contrasts in scenery to enhance the performance.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

 1 – These dates came from the Oxford Dictionary of Music and contradict the Wikipedia article on Offenbach which states that he left after a year.

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