Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas cracker? OAE strikes Offenbach


Here's a little piece I wrote for the Indy about Offenbach and his long-lost operatic extravaganza Fantasio, which the OAE is performing (its British premiere, btw) on Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall. I can't go because it is Alicia's Gift in Hampstead that night, but I'm pleased to say that the show is being recorded for Opera Rara. The one and only Sarah Connolly sings the title role. Looking forward to hearing it...

The fate of Jacques Offenbach’s Fantasio seems bizarre – if not quite as bizarre as the opera itself. Recently unearthed and published, having not been seen since 1927, it is about to enjoy its British premiere in a concert performance and recording for Opera Rara by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and an all-star cast. The hope is that it may emerge as a neglected masterpiece that can shed new light on its composer. 

Admittedly this Offenbach is off-the-wall. Fantasio, an idealistic young student, loves a princess who is meant to marry a prince. To disrupt her wedding plans he disguises himself as the court jester, who has just died. It’s a peculiar premise, signalling a comic opera with a melancholy slant under the surface; but Offenbach could never escape his own bent for the quirky, the naughty and the magical.
Best known for having written the world’s most famous cancan, the composer is popular for his effervescent operettas – especially La belle Hélène and Orphée aux enfers – yet he dreamed of a career in serious music drama. Only one such work by him is in the repertoire today: Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). For all its darkness it, too, remains as fantastical a piece as has ever graced a stage. 

The British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who takes the title role, describes Fantasio as “a convoluted, barmy farce. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz,” she adds. “It has that fantasy element to it, with cardboard cut-out characters – almost a Disneyesque feel. It is an ironic piece, though; it’s not to be taken at face value.” She affirms, too, that its nuttiness is worth it for the music: “It’s absolutely beautiful and the orchestration is very delicate. It feels like the sun coming out.” 

The story is based on an 1866 play by Alfred de Musset that had not been much of a success; and the odds were stacked even further against Offenbach’s adaptation when it was first aired at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1872. Offenbach – a German-born composer living and working in France – had been much attacked in the press during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and national sensitivities continued to run high after France’s defeat. If he hoped Fantasio would be a way to fight back, he was disappointed; the theatre curtailed the opening run after only ten performances. Saddened, Offenbach recycled some of its themes in Les contes d’Hoffmann

But if anyone wonders why Offenbach was so devoted to this opera, they would not have to look far. Fantasio is a “bitter clown”, the archetypal comedian weeping behind his pranks. It seems that Offenbach had found therein a character after his own heart.  

Fantasio, Royal Festival Hall, 15 December. Box office: 0844 875 0073