Tuesday, 18 June 2019

A lyric melancholy vein: the UK stage debut of Offenbach's late opera comique Fantasio intrigues and engages at Garsington Opera

Offenbach: Fantasio - Timothy Robinson, Hanna Hipp - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo John Snelling)
Offenbach: Fantasio - Timothy Robinson, Hanna Hipp - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo John Snelling)
Offenbach Fantasio; Hanna Hipp, Jennifer France, Huw Montague Rendall, Timothy Robinson, Graeme Broadbent Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Offenbach in lyric melancholy vein, in the first UK staging of his late opera comique

Offenbach: Fantasio - Jennifer France - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Fantasio - Jennifer France
Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach's Fantasio is one of the works where, replacing the mad-cap satire of his earlier operettas with a more romantic melancholy, he paved the way for Les contes d'Hoffmann. Unpopular during his lifetime, Fantasio disappeared and only work by the musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck brought the score together again. Opera Rara's recording of the work was released in in 2014 [see my review], and there was an associated concert performance. At the time, I wondered quite how this transitional piece would work on the stage, and now Garsington Opera has given us the opportunity to find out.

Staged at Garsington by Martin Duncan (seen Sunday 16 June 2019), Offenbach's Fantasio featured Hanna Hipp as Fantasio, Jennifer France as Princess Elsbeth, Timothy Robinson as Marinoni, Huw Montague Rendall as the Prince of Mantua, Graeme Broadbent as the King of Bavaria and Bianca Andrew was Flamel. Justin Doyle conducted the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Garsington Opera Chorus. The work was performed in a new English translation by Jeremy Sams.

Fantasio was written for the Opera Comique in Paris in 1870, but the premiere was delayed owing to the Franco-Prussian war. It debuted in 1872 with Celestine Galli-Marie (the first Carmen) in the title role. Based on a relatively unsuccessful play by Alfred de Musset, Fantasio was a somewhat daring choice and the piece failed, much to Offenbach's distress. There may be an element of identification, many commentators see Offenbach himself in the role of the melancholy clown Fantasio.

A poor student, Fantasio (Hanna Hipp) takes advantage of the death of the King's jester to take up that role and in this position gets close to the Princess Elsbeth (Jennifer France), whom he has serenaded unseen. Elsbeth is due to be married to the Prince of Mantua (Huw Montague-Rendall) but wants to marry for love. The prince is keen to be loved for himself and swaps clothes with his aide-de-camp, Marinoni (Timothy Robinson). Fantasio gets close to the Princess, and disrupts the wedding plans by revealing the Prince's disguise. Thrown into prison, he reveals his true self to the Princess who helps him escape, and he persuades the Prince to sign a peace treaty. The marriage however, is off, and the work ends with the Princess letting Fantasio keep the key to her 'secret garden'.

Offenbach: Fantasio - Huw Montague Rendall, Timothy Robinson, Jennifer France, Graeme Broadbent Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Fantasio - Huw Montague Rendall, Timothy Robinson, Jennifer France, Graeme Broadbent
Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
The work, in fact, has intriguing elements in common with Chabrier's L'etoile (which premiered in 1875).
And whilst there is a vein of lyric melancholy, there are mad-cap elements too, both the Prince and Marinoni are closer to stock characters as are the students, Facio (Joel Williams), Harmann (Joseph Padfield) and Sparck (Benjamin Lewis) who pop up as a commentary complementary to the townsfolk (the chorus). But the core of the work is the pair of scenes for Fantasio and the Princess, one in her garden (in Act Two) and one in prison (Act Three), and you wish that this relationship had been developed more. Act One is rather slow, taking its time to establish characters and the piece spends rather too long with the Prince, Marinoni and their 'cunning plan' (Jeremy Sams' singing translation seemed to enjoy the hints of Blackadder).

Offenbach: Fantasio - Hanna Hipp - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Fantasio - Hanna Hipp - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
The overall tone is slightly uncertain, is this a comic operetta or is it a romantic opera and this mixed tone made me think of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) where they produced an operetta with a far more serious vein than their earlier work. Martin Duncan and his designer Francis O'Connor had the added complication of having to stage Act One (which is set at dusk and in the twilight) in a theatre flooded with light. Their solution was to create a surreal world with a set inspired by De Chirico and costumes which evoked the 18th century ommedia dell'arte but were securely modern. The result highlighted the more comic elements of the plot, but I rather missed a vein of lyric romance in the staging.

Luckily this was supplied by Hanna Hipp and Jennifer France. Hipp made an engaging and intriguing Fantasio, a melancholy dreamer with a strong personality. Hipp's song to the moon in Act One (sung in broad daylight) was entrancing and set the scene, whilst France wonderfully combined the Princess' pin-sharp coloratura with a vein of melancholy at her impending marriage. Hipp and France really made a connection in their wonderfully romantic scene in Act Two, disguise and darkness meaning that each reveals something of their private self to the other. The prison scene was similarly touching, and the unresolved resolution at the end of the opera made you long to know what happened to these characters.

Offenbach: Fantasio - Benjamin Lewis, Joseph Padfield, Joel Williams, Hannah Hipp - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Fantasio - Benjamin Lewis, Joseph Padfield, Joel Williams, Hannah Hipp
Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Huw Montague Rendall managed to be delightfully engaging as the Prince of Mantua, rather more 'Tim nice but dim' than Blackadder and revealed a supple lyric baritone which deserves a more serious vehicle. Timothy Robinson was alarmingly foppish as Marinoni, entering with a will into the charades yet, when he stops pretending to be 'The Prince' reveals his own vein of melancholy too.

Graeme Broadbent did his best with the King of Bavaria, who is very much a cipher, whilst Bianca Andrew flexibly slipped in and out of the action as the Princess' page. The three students, Joel Williams, Joseph Padfield and Benjamin Lewis made the best of their scenes but you felt that Offenbach's heart wasn't quite in it and he had done this sort of thing better earlier in his career.

The chorus entered into the piece with a will, and with no separate dance troupe, they entertained us royally with Ewan Jones' elaborately choreographed choruses, bringing the work to life.

The work was sung of Jeremy Sams' English version and the cast's diction was excellent, so we barely needed the surtitles. Whilst I can understand the reasoning behind doing it in English, I did miss the sound of the sung French language and feel that this would have brought an added layer to the piece. Sams did not entirely avoid that major pitfall of translating Offenbach into English, the proximity of G&S, and there were numbers which would almost have fitted into a Savoy Opera. That some of Offenbach's melodies could be described as Sullivanesque indicates quite how much influence Offenbach had on his younger English contemporary.

In the pit, Justin Doyle and the orchestra successfully created a sense of Offenbach's journey from Orpheus to Hoffmann.

Offenbach: Fantasio - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Fantasio - Garsington Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
This was a performance which both intrigued and engaged, making us realise the complexity of Offenbach's later works. The fine performances from the central two characters ensured that the lyric melancholy of the piece was finely served, surrounded by the more classic Offenbach operetta of the lesser characters.
This review also appears on the Opera Today website.

Fantasio - opera comique in three acts
Music: Jacques Offenbach
Libretto: Paul de Musset
English Translation: Jeremy Sams
Facio - Joel Williams
Hartmann - Joseph Padfield
Sparck - Benjamin Lewis
The King of Bavaria - Graeme Broadbent
Rutten - Alexander Bevan
Max - Seumas Begg
Marinoni - Timothy Robinson
Fantasio - Hanna Hipp
Flamel - Bianca Andrew
Princess Elsbeth - Jennifer France
Mourner - THomas D Hopkinson
Tailor - FLora Macdonald
Prince of Mantua - Huw Montague Rendall
Swiss Guard - Robert Garland
Passer-by - Kieran Rayner
Conductor - Justin Doyle
Director - Martin Duncan
Designer - Francies O'Connor
Lighting - Howard Hudson
Movement - Ewan Jones

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