Offenbach’s Fantasio only lasted for ten performances on its premiere in Paris in 1872, although when one listens to the work it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the hostility was directed more towards Offenbach for being Prussian born than against the opera itself. It subsequently enjoyed greater success in Vienna, but the orchestral score of the Paris version was never published, and musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck spent many years piecing it together from other surviving sources. This culminated in a concert performance (and recording) by Opera Rara and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 2013, conducted by Mark Elder, with Sarah Connolly in the title role. Garsington Opera’s presentation, however, constitutes the UK stage premiere of the work and features a specially commissioned new English translation by Jeremy Sams.
By focusing on a jester, or rather a poetical young man disguised as a jester, Fantasio might be described as opera’s comic equivalent to the tragic Rigoletto. In both pieces much is made of the clown’s role to mock and expose others, and in both he suffers as a consequence of fulfilling his duty. The difference is that while Rigoletto undergoes the most painful and merciless of defeats, Fantasio never fares so badly and turns everything around at the end.
The opera is, in fact, a good exposition on the theme of the fool triumphant. When Princess Elsbeth of Bavaria is lined up to marry the Prince of Mantua for political reasons, she laments the death of the court jester St Jean who she loved. The humble Fantasio, who also loves the Princess, disguises himself as a replacement clown to enter the court and thus be near her, and in the process he reveals everyone else to be the fool.
Meanwhile, the Prince of Mantua swaps clothes with one of his entourage, Marinoni, in order to find out more about Elsbeth, and to see if she really loves him for who he is. He has trouble, however, behaving in line with his now more lowly status, and pandemonium breaks out when Fantasio exposes Marinoni as a fool when he pulls his wig off in public, believing him to be the Prince. Fantasio is imprisoned for his deed, but escapes and finally triumphs over everyone. Frustrated at his failure to win the Princess over, the Prince declares war between Mantua and Bavaria, but when the jester suggests that he fight in single combat, rather than call on his army, he is forced to back down, thus allowing peace to prevail.
Spread over three acts, and with nearly three hours of music, the opera actually goes at quite a pace, with a lot of action packed into its running time. As a rule, the music whips us along with its jollity, charge and frantic chorus numbers, but there is also space for the most tender and soul-searching arias and duets. Many of the arias also impress with the sheer extent to which they take an initial idea or emotion and continue to develop it throughout.
Martin Duncan’s production does not set the action in a specific era so much as a fantastical place, which seems entirely appropriate given the subject matter. In this way, Francis O’Connor’s set is dominated by the bright colours of Harlequin and Columbine, while a map covering both Mantua and Bavaria occupies a section of the floor, with the Prince and Marinoni crossing from one kingdom to the other on it using a comical boat. A row of arches is also moved into different positions across the evening with these representing entrances and opportunities when they are open, and prisons and oppression when bars drop across them.
The chorus wear bright costumes of blue and purple and, if not all of their movements feel particularly revolutionary, there is a pleasing sense to everything they do, especially since their gestures are executed so slickly. The consequence of all of this, however, is that the production can feel a little too light, as if the opera’s darker aspects are being underplayed. Nevertheless, they are certainly not ignored as Jeremy Sams’ translation is both smooth and astute, while Justin Doyle’s excellent conducting also seems as if it is getting to the very heart of the piece.
Jennifer France is outstanding as Elsbeth, with her glistening soprano not only conquering all of the technical challenges of the role but also helping to mark out her character. In this way, she makes Elsbeth appear sweet and innocent on the surface, while also helping us to appreciate that there is a great mind at work in the Princess. France also complements Hanna Hipp’s Fantasio well, with Hipp’s mezzo-soprano feeling quite dreamy, as befits the character, but being made special by the shape and evenness of tone that she brings to it. Against this very strong and, in many ways, subtle partnership, the two leading men – Huw Montague Rendall as the Prince of Mantua and Timothy Robinson as Marinoni – provide more overt comedy, with the former revealing a pleasing baritone and the latter’s acting proving highly appropriate for the part. Special mention should also be made of Graeme Broadbent as the King of Bavaria, whose bass is magisterial and whose attempts to suppress his laughter after Marinoni’s wig has been pulled off are absolutely priceless.
Garsington Opera’s 2019 season continues until 26 July. For full details and tickets visit the designated website.