United Kingdom Garsington Opera 2019  – Offenbach, Fantasio: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Justin Doyle (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 22.6.2018. (CR)
Director – Martin Duncan
Designer – Francis O’Connor
Lighting designer – Howard Hudson
Movement director – Ewan Jones
Fantasio – Hanna Hipp
Princess Elsbeth – Jennifer France
Prince of Mantua – Huw Montague Rendall
Marinoni – Timothy Robinson
King of Bavaria – Graeme Broadbent
Flamel – Bianca Andrew
Hartmann – Joseph Padfield
Facio – Joel Williams
Sparck – Benjamin Lewis
Rutten – Alexander Bevan
Max – Seumas Begg
Mourner – Thomas D Hopkinson
Tailor – Flora Macdonald
Swiss Guard – Robert Garland
Passer-by – Kieran Rayner
A Prince of Mantua and a jester: this is not Rigoletto, however, but a very little known opéra-comique by Offenbach. Fantasio failed to win much popularity on its first appearance in the 1870s, and never caught on through any subsequent revival, not least since it survived only in fragmentary form, and has had to be reconstructed from various sources.
It begs the question, then, as to whether it deserves a revival now, for any better reason than merely dredging up a rarity in the bicentenary year of Offenbach’s birth. The story tells of a group of mischievous students, led by Fantasio, who assumes a disguise as a jester to gain access to the court and persuades the Bavarian Princess Elsbeth that she does not love the Prince of Mantua, with whom it has been arranged (for diplomatic reasons) that she should be married. A few banal tricks are pulled off to avert that, and a semi-serious point is made by Fantasio to the crowd that love and life are better than war and death, and that if monarchs want to squabble they can fight battles themselves. It is poignant to reflect that the Franco-Prussian War intervened, preventing the wide dissemination of the opera at the time, rendering its well-intentioned message irrelevant. But that rather proved, in its grim way, that all such satirical levity usually achieves is to maintain the status quo instead of radically disrupting conventional wisdom and habit, for all that the fool’s insights seek to overturn the established order.
The decision to translate Paul de Musset’s threadbare libretto into English could have been an opportunity to provide some oblique commentary and satire on more current affairs and social mores in the spoken dialogues, as is often the case in modern productions of Offenbach’s works, as of Gilbert and Sullivan’s. But Jeremy Sams’s translation avoids that challenge and hardly ever rises about cliché and anodyne verse. A pun on Bavarians and barbarians just about raises a laugh, for example, but other comedy is thin. A visually colourful set and costumes – in a sort of adapted 18th-century, Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy – make up for Martin Duncan’s efficient rather than inspired or insightful direction. The scenes are dominated by the blue and white pattern of Bavaria’s flags and a viaduct feature which is deployed to form, variously, the interior and exterior of the palace, or a prison, but otherwise there is no telling concept to provide any interpretative angle upon the drama, nor any evocation of Munich. It is also a pointless joke that, during the lengthy Overture, the Prince and a courtier, Marinoni, take up a boat to complete their journey across to the Bavarian capital, when in fact the Alps stand between it and Mantua, not the sea.
Alongside the vibrant visual spectacle, the musical performance goes some way to redeem the lacklustre production. Justin Doyle conducts the Garsington Opera Orchestra in a fairly broad account of the score which is marked more by its lyrical vein rather than fizzing ensembles or virtuosic arias. More variety and nuance in some passages would be welcome to provide more vivacious drama, but otherwise Doyle attains the right urbane mood. Hanna Hipp sings richly and persuasively in the trouser role of Fantasio, but she tends to be too earnest to bring off the role of the jester with sufficient flair and charisma. Jennifer France sparkles as Princess Elsbeth – the one character to whom Offenbach gives some vocal pirouettes to perform, and which are executed here alluringly.
Huw Montague Rendall combines both sonorous lyricism and comic bluster as the somewhat inept Prince of Mantua, alongside Timothy Robinson’s unruly Marinoni in their Jeeves and Wooster style routines. Similar comic bravado is brought to bear in the parts of Fantasio’s fellow students, Facio, Hartmann, and Sparck, as well as the ineffectual schemes of Graeme Broadbent’s King of Bavaria. The Chorus sing with gusto, doing their best to add impetus and charm to the work, particularly in their diaphanous hymn to the falling night.
Offenbach’s score certainly has its moments, but if anniversary syndrome has to strike, one cannot help but feel that something more witty and substantive could have been unearthed from his extensive catalogue of stage works. As it is, this production does not make the case for Fantasio’s needing to be revived any time again soon.