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Jacques Offenbach: Fantasio
Sarah Connolly (Fantasio), Brenda Rae (La princesse Elsbeth), Russell Braun (Le prince de Mantoue), Robert Murray (Marinoni), Brindley Sherratt (Le roi de Bavière), Neal Davies (Sparck), Aled Hall (Facio), Gavan Ring (Hartmann), Victoria Simmonds (Flamel), Michael Burke (Un Pénitent), Robert Anthony Gardiner (Max), Opera Rara Chorus, Renato Balsadonna (chorus director), The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London (December 2013) – 139’08
2 CDs Opera Rara ORC51 – Notes and libretto in English, French, and German

I am a keen fan of Opera Rara which for 40 years has been meticulously unearthing operatic gems for whoever wishes to explore the operatic byways. This recording of a mature work by Jacques Offenbach is beautifully produced in every way, although the piece itself comes across as pallid.

Fantasio was premiered in 1872 in Paris and it was not a success, with a mere ten performances. The booklet quotes a laudatory review of the day, wherein the critic praises the work for having “none of the frivolous, witty, cheerful, rhythmic little pieces that audiences merrily hum as they spill out of the (theatres)”; instead the work is in “the realm of opera”. To explain the failure of the piece, the booklet cites a wave of anti-Prussian sentiment after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (Offenbach was from the Rhineland despite of his booming Parisian career) but I suspect the paucity of the composer’s trademark effervescence is what sunk the work.

In short order the work was produced in Vienna where it met with more success and where, in various productions over the years, the title role (originally sung by Celestine Galli-Marié, later the original Carmen) was re-set for tenor or baritone. The version recorded here is from the Keck Offenbach Edition being put together by musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck with the support of a Venice-based foundation, the Palazetto Bru Zane - Centre de musique romantique française. Keck has focused on reassembling the original Paris edition.

The action is set in Munich where the local princess, Elsbeth, age 16, is to marry for diplomatic reasons the Prince of Mantua. Fantasio is one of a group of roistering students who has managed to insinuate himself into the royal household replacing their recently-deceased court jester. This gives him an opportunity to subvert the wedding arrangement, much to the delight of the princess. After much uproar, war is averted and the king makes Fantasio a prince. One might expect a happily-ever-after type of marriage, but what happens is that the princess lets him keep the key to her private garden (poetic euphemism perhaps?) while all proclaim him to be ”le roi des fous” (the king of fools).

The plot’s origin was a play by Alfred de Musset written in 1834, then adapted by his brother, Paul, for the Comédie-Française in 1866. The play was not a great success. Alfred de Musset (1810-57) was a premier member of the Romantic movement whose works are full of longing and tristesse. The same delicate emotions permeate the opera, especially in Act I, which features a pleasantly whimsical overture (seven minutes long, which makes for an anemic start), followed by a short scene for boisterous students (one of many foreshadowings of Les Contes d’Hoffmann), then Fantasio enters and sings a dreamy ballad addressed to the moon. This mooniness continues with the entrance of the melancholy princess voicing her apprehensiveness. Things liven up with the entrance of the prince and his aide-de-camp, Marinoni. The prince has a half-baked scheme to exchange identities with his aide; havoc ensues when they are presented to the royals and the prince keeps breaking out of his assumed role. The prince then gets a moony ballad expressing his longing to be loved for himself and not his rank. Another bit of tristesse is a funeral procession for the deceased jester.

Things do get livelier in the scene ending Act II, when the royal engagement disintegrates. More wistfulness ensues, however, when the princess and Fantasio strike up a relationship (romantic? ardent friendship?) before the lively denouement.

Just prior to the recording session, a concert performance of the work was given at London’s Royal Festival Hall. As a result the recording is as characterful as the piece permits and avoids any trace of tentativeness.

Sarah Connolly is regarded as a superstar in those favoured theatres where she has sung, and her performance here supports this verdict: a luscious voice with the right degree or expressiveness for each dramatic moment.The other standout is Brenda Rae as the princess - if a prize is awarded for trills she deserves to win. Russell Braun is just right as the yearning, rather confused, prince. Other standouts are tenor Robert Murray as the prince’s hapless aide, Brindley Sherratt as the king, and Neal Davies as the lively student, Sparck. As one would expect, Sir Mark Elder draws out the appropriate sounds, whether delicate or robust, from the 58-member orchestra and the animated Opera Rara Chorus.

Michael Johnson




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