Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Modernity vanquished? Verdi Un ballo in maschera, Royal Opera House, London

Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.

La Traviata in Ljubljana Slovenia

Small country, small opera house — big ensemble spirit. Internationally acclaimed soprano Natalia Ushakova steps in for indisposed local Violetta with mixed results.

Otello in Bucharest — Moor’s the pity

Bulgarian director Vera Nemirova’s production of Otello for the Romanian National Opera in Bucharest was certainly full of new ideas — unfortunately all bad.

Il trovatore at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its current revival of the 2006-2007 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore by Sir David McVicar Lyric Opera has assembled a talented quintet of principal singers whose strengths match this conception of the opera.

Mary, Queen of Heaven, Wigmore Hall

O Maria Deo grata — ‘O Mary, pleasing to God’: so begins Robert Fayrfax’s antiphon, one of several supplications to the Virgin Mary presented in this thought-provoking concert by The Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall.

Analyzed not demonized — Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera House

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, first revival of the 2009 production, one of the first to attract widespread hostility even before the curtain rose on the first night.

Florencia in el Amazonas Makes Triumphant Return to LA

On November 22, 2014, Los Angeles Opera staged Francesca Zambello’s updated version of Florencia in el Amazonas.

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

John Adams and his long-standing collaborator Peter Sellars have described The Gospel According to the Other Mary as a ‘Passion oratorio’.

A new Yevgeny Onegin in Zagreb — Prince Gremin’s Fabulous Pool Party

Superb conducting from veteran Croatian maestro Nikša Bareza makes up for an absurd waterlogged new production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Nabucco in Novi Sad

After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 27th October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.

La Bohème in San Francisco

First Toronto, then Houston and now San Francisco, the third stop of a new production of Puccini's La bohème by Canadian born, British nurtured theater director John Caird.

Radvanovsky Sings Recital in Los Angeles

Every once in a while Los Angeles Opera presents an important recital in the three thousand seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

L’elisir d’amore, Royal Opera

This third revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore needed a bit of a pep up to get moving but once it had been given a shot of ‘medicinal’ tincture things spiced up nicely.

Samling Showcase, Wigmore Hall

Founded in 1996, Samling describes itself as a charity which ‘inspires musical excellence in young people’.

La cenerentola in San Francisco

The good news is that you don’t have to go all the way to Pesaro for great Rossini.

Rameau: Maître à danser — William Christie, Barbican London

Maître à danser: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican, London, presented a defining moment in Rameau performance practice, choreographed with a team of dancers.

Le Nozze di Figaro — or Sex on the Beach?

The most memorable thing (and definitely not in a good way) about this performance of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Serbian National Theatre in Belgrade was the self-serving, infantile, offensive and just plain wrong production by celebrated Serbian theatre director Jagoš Marković.

The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’

Should looks matter when casting the role of the iconic temptress for HD simulcast?

Maurice Greene’s Jephtha

Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.

Tosca in San Francisco

Yet another Tosca is hardly exciting news, if news at all. The current five performances have come just two years after SFO alternated divas Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette in the title role.

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):