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Commentary

17 May 2019

Martin Duncan directs the first UK staging of Offenbach's Fantasio at Garsington

A mournful Princess forced by her father into an arranged marriage. A Prince who laments that no-one loves him for himself, and so exchanges places with his aide-de-camp. A melancholy dreamer who dons a deceased jester’s motley and finds himself imprisoned for impertinence.

Fantasio: the first UK staging of Offenbach’s operetta, at Garsington Opera

An interview with Martin Duncan, by Claire Seymour

 

The elements which make up Jacques Offenbach’s Fantasio don’t immediately sound like a bundle of laughs, but there is mirth alongside the melancholy and Martin Duncan will aim to draw forth both, and the operetta’s slightly surreal quality, when he directs Fantasio at Garsington Opera next month.

I begin by asking Martin, who’s directed several of the composer’s works in the past, why he was keen to bring Fantasio to the stage, and he replies simply, “I was asked!” Martin’s production of another ‘unknown’ Offenbach opera, the absurdist Vert-Vert, at Garsington in 2014 won accolades, with one critic describing it as ‘two and a half hours of unalloyed pleasure, excelling in every department’ and another remarking, ‘It’s seldom that I’ve witnessed an operetta by Offenbach as well performed as this’. And, Martin is looking forward to introducing Fantasio to audiences who will have no idea what to expect.

“I like telling people new stories. The audience will have no preconceptions. We’re performing in English [in a new translation by Jeremy Sams], so they won’t be looking up at surtitles, they’ll just be drawn into the story. I don’t want to direct, say, The Marriage of Figaro. I’ve seen it. It’s been done well, and it’s a brilliant opera: I’ve got nothing more to say. I want to tell new stories.”

This production is the first time that Fantasio has been staged in the UK, but not the first time is has been performed, and I ask Martin if he saw Opera Rara’s concert performance in 2013? He didn’t, but he has listened to the subsequent recording (which is in French). Mid-rehearsals at Garsington, he feels that because the cast are now actually acting, the drama inevitably has a greater freshness and energy. In 2013 I found the Act 1 exposition rather lengthy and the music occasionally a little humdrum (there’s quite a bit of self-quotation), but Martin feels that the English text will speak more directly to the audience. In any case, they’ve had to cut quite a bit of the spoken dialogue, not least because the three-act operetta has to be divided into two parts which are separated by the Garsington long-interval. Here, Acts 1 and 2 will precede dinner, with the short final Act serving as a digestif.

And, what does Martin make of the operetta’s ‘story’? It didn’t go down well with the Parisians in 1872 and was withdrawn after just ten performances at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Some have blamed the timing: the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, and a climate of growing nationalism and antisemitism, was perhaps not an opportune moment for a German-born Jew to stage a work based on a play that had been set in Munich. Others criticise the libretto which was fashioned by Alfred de Musset’s brother Paul from the former’s original drama, which had itself flopped at the Comédie-Française in 1866.

Martin remarks that it is odd that Offenbach chose to set a text which had been so unsuccessful! But, he feels that Fantasio shares with Vert-Vert a melancholy tenor. Once again, he finds himself staging a funeral, the burial of the eponymous dead parrot which opens Vert-Vert being matched by the slow, sombre funeral chorus which ends Act 1 of Fantasio. But, when people encounter the title, Martin notes, they will anticipate something ‘fantastical’ and there’s plenty of fantasy and fun too. A short YouTube clip of the 2017 Théâtre du Châtelet production reveals a predominantly dark stage, with brief splashes of light, but Garsington’s stage will be a riot of colour and brightness. Martin is delighted to be working again with designer Frances O’Connor - “we think on the same wave-length” - and hopes the set, which will open out at times to create multiple locations - will exude an air of surrealism: after all, Martin smiles, being a member of an audience seated in a ‘floating’ kabuki pavilion, in a country estate garden, watching opera is a slightly surreal experience.

Some operas seem to lend themselves perfectly to the Garsington pavilion, the action inside merging with the surrounding landscape as the light fades, the glass sides flicker and night falls. The action of Fantasio, however, starts at night, necessitating some prudent amendments from Sams, who has transformed Fantasio’s opening aria, ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’, from an address to the moon, marvelling at its beauty, into an anticipation of the lunar glories soon to come.

Hanna Hipp Fantasio.jpgHanna Hipp who sings the title role in Offenbach's Fantasio.

And, what sort of a character is the eponymous protagonist, I ask? “He’s a thinker, a scholar, there’s something of the poet about him.” A precursor of Hoffmann? “Yes, Fantasio is often seen as linking the earlier opera bouffes to the later Hoffmann,” Martin comments, which leads him to reflect on the humour in the operetta: “It’s not pantomime. Comedy in opera is difficult. Frequently, singers resort to stock gestures which are not really funny.” Martin began his career as an actor, and those twenty years of experience have obviously taught him much about ‘how comedy works’. He remarks that you “have to do comedy seriously”. Too often actors perform in a way which they ‘think’ is funny, but which isn’t. When he’s directing, it’s not enough for others to say something is comic, it really has to make he himself laugh; but it’s complicated - something that one finds funny one day, may leave one unmoved the next.

Martin certainly has a terrific cast to work with, all of whom, he emphasises, are really dynamic on stage. That morning they have been rehearsing Princess Elsbeth’s virtuosic aria, ‘Quand l’ombre des arbres’, and Jennifer France has been making the twirling runs and leaps sparkle. He’s delighted to be working again with Hanna Hipp, who will sing Fantasio, (she sang the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which Martin directed at Opera Holland Park in 2013). The Prince of Mantua and his manservant Marinoni, who get the lion’s-share of the comic capers, will be performed by Huw Montague Rendall and Timothy Robinson respectively.

Jennifer France Elsbeth.jpgJennifer France who is singing Princess Elsbeth in Fantasio.

The chorus have a large part to play, too - Martin was surprised when the Garsington Chorus commented that they had more to sing in Fantasio than in The Bartered Bride - and they are fully integrated into the action. Many of the chorus have recently graduated from the country’s conservatoires, and they are “young and enthusiastic”. Indeed, several chorus members are alumni of the Royal Academy of Music and performed in Martin’s Royal Academy Opera staging of Orphée aux enfers at the Hackney Empire in 2017, a production I greatly enjoyed: ‘colourful, camp, [Duncan’s] production cheekily blended pantomime and postmodernism, and burst with vitality […] a zippy burlesque to banish February blues.’

Offenbach seems to have made regular appearances during Martin’s work as a director, and I wonder if this is simply coincidental or whether he feels a particularly strong affinity for the composer’s music? Certainly, he sees Offenbach as being at the start of a line which stretches from opera bouffe through Gilbert & Sullivan and on to the book musicals of the 1940s. The latter literally tell a story through words and music, spoken dialogue alternating with song, just as in an Offenbach operetta. And, Martin continues, listening to Princess Elsbeth’s aforementioned aria he was struck that morning by how closely it resembles Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be Gay’.

He explains that, as a child, he listened avidly to his grandfather’s collection of G&S LPs, and went on to direct several D’Oyly Carte productions, including HMS Pinafore, a production which, after a successful performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1999, transferred to the West End the following year, marking the Company’s return to its ‘spiritual home’, the Savoy Theatre. His 1993 Orpheus in the Underworld, a co-production by D’Oyly and Opera North, saw the former venture beyond its staple G&S repertory for the first time.

Returning to Fantasio, Martin remarks that, while there is a bit of self-borrowing, Offenbach’s score is “smashing” and that after a couple of weeks of rehearsals a few earworms have dug in! But, when I ask if there is anything else he’d like to share about the production, he’s reluctant to offer any ‘pointers’: “I find it difficult to comment on a piece until I’ve actually seen how it turns out. A director can explain what they ‘intend’, but then audiences may comment, ‘Well, he didn’t achieve that!’” Martin says he is nervous about a new work until he’s run through it in its entirety; then, he can go back and tighten and tidy up.

Looking ahead, I ask what future ventures Martin has planned? September will take him to Paris, for a grand spectacle, Parade , which will mark the re-opening of the Théâtre du Châtelet, following a two-and-a-half-year renovation project. It’s a bit of a step into the unknown, involving puppets from Mozambique, acrobats, clowns, and spilling out into the spacious square in front of the theatre. Everyone is being pushed out of their comfort zone, he comments. There is some radio work on the horizon too, but no opera: “Perhaps this will be my last opera?” he says, teasingly.

That doesn’t seem likely … but I ask, if he was told he could direct just one more opera, which would he choose. Silence. “I know which ones I don’t want to do!” He’s been reflecting on Janáček of late, and he would also like to re-visit an opera which he directed in Toronto with the Canadian Opera Company in 1991: Britten’s Albert Herring. Another ‘comedy’ with a darker side, and one which is often over-looked, I suggest? Martin agrees: the bitter undercurrents of parochial village life, a mother-son relationship that is quite sinister, and a boy who is not permitted to grow up don’t make for a light-hearted romp. Indeed, Martin’s May Queen jamboree featured that characteristic dampener of English summers, a sudden downpour, raindrops pummelling the roof of the festive marquee and mud sloshing inside. And, I add, just as Fantasio andVert-Vert have a melancholy strain, so there’s a funeral song in Albert Herring too - the faux-sincere threnody that the Loxford worthies sing for Albert, when they fear the worst.

According to the old adage, ‘Laughter is the best medicine’. But, comedy cannot banish all human pain and sadness. And, it’s the plaintive strain beneath the laughter, the elegiac tint that throws a shadow on the comic surface, that Duncan is so skilful at illuminating.

Performances of Fantasio run from 14th June to 20th July.

Claire Seymour

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