Offenbach’s operetta Fantasio has barely been performed since its ignominiously short run (a mere ten performances) at the Opéra Comique in January 1872. Bad timing (the work was staged just a year after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, the grisly siege of Paris and the bloody suppression of the Commune) and a prejudiced public (which spurned the German-born Offenbach in favour of more Gallic composers) were at the root of its failure. Thanks to the musical scholar Jean-Christophe Keck and the recording label Opera Rara, we now have a proper edition to study, perform and listen to.
But is Fantasio any good? The answer is yes, with a bit of no. On the plus side, we have some delightful arias and fine orchestral writing. Less satisfying is the uneven structure and the mawkish sentimentality that pervades the work. But what it really lacks is the spirited gaiety and satirical bite that characterised Offenbach’s output during the heady years of the Second Empire. Keck’s assertion that Fantasio is ‘unquestionably the missing link in the chain between The Rhine Nixes  and The Tales of Hoffmann’ is surely as far-fetched as the libretto. This is based on a play by Alfred de Musset about a Munich student taking on the guise of a mooning clown to charm the local princess, who is unwillingly betrothed to an Italian prince.
Despite these reservations, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Opera Rara chorus under Mark Elder gave an energetic account of this flawed gem. Their exposure of the melodic lines and underlying orchestration pre-figured some aspects of Hoffmann, while the addition of some ‘authentic’ roughness around the edges recalled Offenbach’s early days in the wooden Bouffes-Parisiens. Thankfully, they toned down the over-indulgent sentimentality, and exploited the vestiges of Offenbach’s famed wit, with Elder himself comically joining in some of the spoken dialogue.
In the trousered title role Sarah Connolly gave a restrained but refined performance, looking every inch the well-dressed student-about-town. Her spoken French passed off pretty well too. Brenda Rae commanded Princess Elsbeth’s bigger tunes with coloratura swagger mixed with juvenile vulnerability. Russell Braun effectively combined his high baritone voice and strong comic sense in the role of the Prince of Mantua (Elspeth’s unwanted intended), while Robert Murray excelled as his put-upon sidekick, Marinoni. If not quite a masterpiece, Fantasio is definitely worth reviving, and Opera Rara delivered an effective curtain raiser for their CD release next year.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk