Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

O19’s Phat Philly Phantasy

It is hard to imagine a more animated, engaging, and musically accomplished night at the Academy of Music than with Opera Philadelphia’s winning new staging of The Love for Three Oranges.

Agrippina: Barrie Kosky brings farce and frolics to the ROH

She makes a virtue of her deceit, her own accusers come to her defence, and her crime brings her reward. Agrippina - great-granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, sister of Caligula, wife of Emperor Claudius - might seem to offer those present-day politicians hungry for power an object lesson in how to satisfy their ambition.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Jacques Offenbach ca. 1860 [Source: Wikipedia]
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.

Offenbach’s Fantasio from Opera Rara

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Jacques Offenbach ca. 1860 [Source: Wikipedia]

Photos by Russell Duncan courtesy of Opera Rara

 

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):