17 Dec 2013

Offenbach’s Fantasio from Opera Rara

Premiered in Paris in 1872, Jacques Offenbach’s Fantasio received just ten performances before the opera was withdrawn and its composer found himself on the receiving end of bitter attacks and criticism.

Fantasio_Brenda-Rae-and-Sarah-Connolly.gifBrenda Rae and Sarah Connolly

On the evidence of this first UK performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Opera Rara, this failure was certainly not a result of a dulling of Offenbach’s characteristic wit or for want of a lively tune or two.

Jean-Christopher Keck — who is responsible for this new performing edition of Fantasio (the original was lost when the Salle Favart, home to the Opéra-Comique burned to the ground in 1887) — suggests that the opera bombed largely because of bad timing. As a German-born Frenchman writing during the aftermath the Franco-Prussian war, Offenbach was not popular among the musicians of the Opéra-Comique. Moreover, the French, eager for some light relief following the deprivations of war and their recent defeat by the forces of the German coalition, were probably less than delighted to be presented with an opera based on a play by Alfred de Musset which had had little success when staged at the Comédie-Française in 1866 and which, to top it all, was set in Munich.

Whatever the merits of de Musset’s drama, the libretto which his brother Paul fashioned from the original play is a rather limp affair lacking either the sparkle and zest of La vie parisienne, or the shadows and complexity of Les contes d’Hoffmann.

The beautiful Bavarian princess, Elsbeth, who is mourning the death of the court jester, Saint-Jean, has been betrothed by her father to the Prince of Mantua. The Prince has arrived with aide, Marinoni, to claim his bride, and is greeted by crowds of festive townspeople eager to celebrate the nuptial union. The students, however, do not share the general mood of euphoria; in particular, the melancholy dreamer, Fantasio, feels pity for the princess who is to be wed to a complete stranger. He decides to don the deceased jester’s costume, in order to approach the princess; the disguise will also, fortuitously, divert the police who are chasing him for bad debts.

Fantasio_Neal-Davies.gifNeal Davies

For reasons not entirely clear, Marinoni and the Prince swap identities, and when the ‘Prince’ is introduced to Elsbeth, Marinoni’s less than aristocratic comportment does not make a good impression on the princess. Her first meeting with Fantasio is hardly more promising, for she objects to the scholar’s ironic garb, but his waggishness and kindness soften her heart. Meanwhile, Elsbeth’s page, Flamel, has discovered the Prince’s subterfuge; when all are gathered in public, the ‘jester’ fulfils his courtly role by wickedly flipping the royal imposter’s wig into the air. Ailing in gaol as a result of his impertinence, Fantasio is rescued by the now enamoured princess, who gives him the key to her garden. The humiliated and Prince and the enraged King are about to declare war between their two nations, when Fantasio intervenes and pleads for peace. The Prince decides that Elsbeth is not the bride for him and sets off home. The King rewards Fantasio for his services, naming him a Prince; when Fantasio tries to return the key to Elsbeth, she urges him to keep it.

Offenbach’s score contains many musical gems, but the overture gives little hint of the treasures to come. During the slow, mysterious introduction, Mark Elder, conducting without a baton, subtly coaxed some delicate playing from the instrumentalists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The wide tessitura — gentle flutes aloft, unison celli below — and airy texture, together with the rather tentative melodic gestures, created an ambiguous, slightly unsettling tone, before the launch of a zippy allegro got the show on the road. But, the overall effect was rather fragmented.

This faltering forward momentum was a problem throughout the first act, with its fairly long exposition. Perhaps a staged production would create more dramatic drive, but here the spoken dialogue — even though the French was delivered with panache — and standard evening wear, barring Fantasio’s colourful jackets, made things feel rather sluggish.

The mood whipped up in the second act, though; for it’s here that the trademark Offenbach show-stoppers — offering both froth and charm, rapture and serenity — are to be found. And, it was also here that American soprano Brenda Rae’s star quality was revealed. As Elsbeth, in her first Act aria Rae’s rather understated downheartedness did not make much of an impression, the voice generally light and pleasant but lacking strong characterisation. However, in ‘Quand l’ombre des arbres’ the bright clarity, gleaming tone, pinpoint accuracy and sheer stylishness of Rae’s virtuosic runs, leaps and twirls were remarkable; despite the technical challenges she truly acted with her voice. The feistiness and pettishness beneath the decorous young maiden’s obedience came to the fore, particularly in the subsequent duet, ‘Je n’ai donc rien de plu pour consoler mon coeur’, when she pours out her heart to Fantasio: “When you’re sixteen you still have time to be miserable”!

Fantasio_Sir-Mark-Elder.gifSir Mark Elder

The title role seems tailor-made for Sarah Connolly’s luscious mezzo, as perfectly fitted as her gorgeous burgundy velvet jacket; but while she certainly looked the part and used the rich depths of her voice with customary acumen, Connolly’s melancholy dreamer, all brooding reflection and self-absorption, didn’t have quite enough spirit and romantic fire. It didn’t help that she was rather bound to the score, especially in the spoken dialogue, and in contrast to most of the other principals. Fantasio’s opening Act 1 aria, ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’, in which he addresses the moon marvelling at its beauty, was suitably meditative and contained; and Connolly sustained a beautiful line in the Act 3 duet when, languishing in his prison cell, Fantasio is visited by Elsbeth, who fears that his bravery has been in vain and her marriage is inescapable. But, elsewhere I’d have liked a bit less Hoffmann-esque introspection and more roguishness and comic élan.

As the Prince and his manservant, baritone Russell Braun and tenor Robert Murray were a superb double act. They relished the score’s wit, and the energy of their exchanges made the farcical costume-swapping seem ‘credible’ — even as they wryly traded one black jacket for another! Braun’s naval-gazing aria, ‘Je ne serai jamai aimé pour moi-même’, was robust and fittingly narcissistic — ‘What rapture I’d feel if I were ever loved for myself’: the beautifully controlled weightlessness of ‘rapture’, complemented by some lovely woodwind solos, revealed the extent of the Prince’s solipsism. Murray’s Act 3 aria, ‘Reprenez cet habit mon prince’, as Marinoni hands back his master’s finery, was well-acted, the tone earnest, the trills graceful.

The rest of the cast were committed and uniformly more than competent. As Flamel, mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds sang with warmth and focus. Brindley Sherratt was appropriately regal in manner as the Bavarian monarch, but might have employed a touch more heft to suggest the weight of imperial haughtiness. Bass-baritone Neal Davies was excellent as Sparck, aptly conveying the buoyant confidence of youth; Aled Hall (Facio) and Gavan Ring (Hartmann) were convincing as his fellow students.

The Opera Rara Chorus were in gloriously full voice, responding with vigour to Elder’s encouragements — although at times, and perhaps understandably, heads were buried in scores. Elder made certain that every instrumental detail in the score was cleanly heard; pizzicati were precise and meaningfully placed, there was some lovely playing from the first horn, extending and duetting with the vocal melodies, and Pierre Doumenge’s cello solo was expressively executed. In the Act 2 prelude, imposing divided cello were balanced by the tender grace of the violin melody; at the start of Act 3, the blare of the brass was countered by the solo oboe’s seductive curling arcs. There are some self-quotations and some humdrum passages in the score, but Elder made sure that the moments that count really did speak. He even grabbed some of the dramatic limelight, as the tailor to whom Fantasio resorts to purloin the late jester’s gaudy motley.

Inevitably, there were some theatrical coups that did not come off on the concert platform, but some gentle, self-aware irony helped to smooth over the cracks. I felt that Elder might have stirred up the tempo still further, particularly in the act finales; perhaps in the theatre things would more naturally race along. I’m not sure that Fantasio has sufficient dramatic interest and coherence to deserve the epithet, ‘masterpiece’ (the opening is slow, and the third act finale a little cumbersome); but this welcome and accomplished performance certainly made a persuasive case for its musical merits.

Claire Seymour

Opera Rara will release a CD recording of Fantasio in 2014.

Cast and production information:

Brenda Rae, Elsbeth (La Princesse); Sarah Connolly, Fantasio; Victoria Simmonds, Flamel; Robert Murray, Marinoni; Russell Braun, Le Prince; Neal Davies, Sparck; Brindley Sherratt, Le Roi; Aled Hall, Facio; Gavan Ring, Hartmann; Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Opera Rara Chorus. Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday, 14th December 2013.