This was an important occasion to rediscover Jacques Offenbach’s much troubled Fantasio. Being the UK premiere of the reconstructed Parisian version of the score which was not that straightforward a task, worth reading the piece by Jean-Christophe Keck to get an idea of the complexities of putting this new critical edition together. The work had an indifferent reception when performed in 1872 and judging after having heard it live I can relate to the reactions of the Parisians. Offenbach is as always a master of creating moods and atmosphere, especially when the darkness of the palace’s gardens in Act Two or the grieving crowd in a city square is called for but in Fantasio the amalgam of witty spoken dialogue and standalone ariosos and ballades can appear disjointed if in the wrong hands. The OAE and a very perky Mark Elder on the podium managed to bring the work to life and the sheer dedication, enthusiasm and comic timing of the top rank cast made it an extremely funny evening. We even have to thank the French censorship office for saving the only extant copy of the spoken dialogue!
The soundworld of the piece is mainly a nocturnal romantic one and Offenbach’s skill at orchestrating delicious harmonies to carve vivid characters and situations is well and present. His skill at writing for voices made obvious in the numerous duets and the judicious use of the chorus, which frequently reacted to the main protagonists as the comical backdrop. Most deliciously at the finale of the Third Act when they are convinced by Fantasio that war is pointless and that wine, home and family is more important as pursuits. The quintet of Act Two exposing the motives of the characters and the piquant duet of Prince and Marinoni adds a typical flash of camp humour to the proceedings.
Sarah Connolly as the eponymous hero strutted her stuff across the stage en travesti in a maroon velvet smoking jacket, white dandyish shirt and high leather boots. His property has been impounded due to debts and arriving to court and falling in love with the about to be married princess. The court jester has just died and he gets the idea to impersonate him in order to be admitted to the Palace without being detected. He then approaches the dead jester’s taylor, here sang by Mark Elder looking every inch the harassed tailor when quizzed by Fantasio on the size of the hump he should adopt. It is not frequently when one wishes the conductor held a cameo in a production but this was absolutely spot on and made the whole auditorium laugh with abandon. Connolly donned a more decorated red jacket to infiltrate the court. Her ballad in Act One was as unassuming as it was dreamy. Her interpretation never showy or forced. And we have to be thankful for the near last minute casting of Brenda Rae as the replacement Princess who blended vocally with Connolly in marvellous and gorgeous ways, leaving very little doubt on how love stricken they both were.
The Princess of Brenda Rae was a character with all the arrogance of her privileged upbringing but also a woman living in a golden cage of responsibility that she cannot shake off. This tortured side of hers made it for a much more interesting dynamic with Fantasio, who in essence manages to free her from her empty marriage and shows her the joy of love. Very much in the mould used many times by Richard Strauss in his later career operas. Rae brought a glistening top and a very firm core to her voice, accompanied by a remarkably natural trill. Her ballad in Act One explaining her sadness for the loss of the much loved jester and her impending marriage was so rendition so sweet and soulful that we were as enamoured with her as much as Fantasio that overhears her and the abundant applause made it all too clear.
The persistent chorus of the three students that permeates all three acts is the mechanism that Offenbach uses to bring the audience in the story and to throw about cheap gags to lighten the atmosphere further. The three singers behaved as the drunken, ironic louts one would expect and infused the performance with a lot of fun.
The gorgeously deep bass of Brindley Sherratt was a delicious match for the gravitas of the King and his acceptance of the chant by his subjects on his appearance in Act One one of the sly comic moments of the evening.
The Prince of Russell Braun was the sly and calculating type but with an all too clear sense of how he will never be loved for who he really is. His performance was vivid and comically attuned especially in his interactions with his aide Marinoni.
The courtiers were also acted with passion and dedication by Victoria Simmonds and Robert Murray. The fiendishly camp and fioritura heavy part of Marinoni was a great achievement and a suitable contrast to the stolid nature of the part of the Prince of Mantua with whom he gets in a complicated impersonation game that makes both of them the laughing stock of this farce. Flamel on the other hand is the stoic support to the confused and tormented Princess.
The wonderful performance by all on stage made for a very funny evening that truly did honour the intentions of the composer and the recording will hopefully allow a new generation discover this beautiful and at times inspired work. A really funny staging would probably give it a chance at joining the operatic repertoire a century and a half after its troubled inception. This great cast and orchestra offered an insight into the innovative and ambitious nature of Offenbach’s score. The recording is released by Opera Rara in September 2014, watch out for it and take the chance to discover this neglected work.
Some tweets from the evening
The pre performance talk by Mark Elder