First staged production of Offenbach’s Fantasio at Garsington

Opera Rara’s recording of the work was released in in 2014 [see

my review

], and there was an associated concert performance. At the time, I wondered
quite how this transitional piece would work on the stage, and now
Garsington Opera has given us the opportunity to find out.

Staged at Garsington
by Martin Duncan
(seen Sunday 16 June 2019), Offenbach’s Fantasio featured

Hanna Hipp

as Fantasio,

Jennifer France

as Princess Elsbeth,

Timothy Robinson

as Marinoni,

Huw Montague Rendall

as the Prince of Mantua,

Graeme Broadbent

as the King of Bavaria and Bianca Andrew
was Flamel.

Justin Doyle

conducted the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Garsington Opera Chorus. The
work was performed in a new English translation by

Jeremy Sams


was written for the Opera Comique in Paris in 1870, but the premiere was
delayed owing to the Franco-Prussian war. It debuted in 1872 with Celestine
Galli-Marie (the first Carmen) in the title role. Based on a relatively
unsuccessful play by Alfred de Musset, Fantasio was a somewhat
daring choice and the piece failed, much to Offenbach’s distress. There may
be an element of identification, many commentators see Offenbach himself in
the role of the melancholy clown Fantasio.

A poor student, Fantasio (Hanna Hipp) takes advantage of the death of the
King’s jester to take up that role and in this position gets close to the
Princess Elsbeth (Jennifer France), whom he has serenaded unseen. Elsbeth
is due to be married to the Prince of Mantua (Huw Montague-Rendall) but
wants to marry for love. The prince is keen to be loved for himself and
swaps clothes with his aide-de-camp, Marinoni (Timothy Robinson). Fantasio
gets close to the Princess, and disrupts the wedding plans by revealing the
Prince’s disguise. Thrown into prison, he reveals his true self to the
Princess who helps him escape, and he persuades the Prince to sign a peace
treaty. The marriage however, is off, and the work ends with the Princess
letting Fantasio keep the key to her ‘secret garden’.

And whilst there is a vein of lyric melancholy, there are mad-cap elements
too, both the Prince and Marinoni are closer to stock characters as are the
students, Facio (Joel Williams), Harmann (Joseph Padfield) and Sparck
(Benjamin Lewis) who pop up as a commentary complementary to the townsfolk
(the chorus). But the core of the work is the pair of scenes for Fantasio
and the Princess, one in her garden (in Act Two) and one in prison (Act
Three), and you wish that this relationship had been developed more. Act
One is rather slow, taking its time to establish characters and the piece
spends rather too long with the Prince, Marinoni and their ‘cunning plan’
(Jeremy Sams’ singing translation seemed to enjoy the hints of Blackadder).

The overall tone is slightly uncertain, is this a comic operetta or is it a
romantic opera and this mixed tone made me think of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) where they produced an operetta
with a far more serious vein than their earlier work. Martin Duncan and his
designer Francis O’Connor had the added complication of having to stage Act
One (which is set at dusk and in the twilight) in a theatre flooded with
light. Their solution was to create a surreal world with a set inspired by
De Chirico and costumes which evoked the 18th century ommedia dell’arte but
were securely modern. The result highlighted the more comic elements of the
plot, but I rather missed a vein of lyric romance in the staging.

Luckily this was supplied by Hanna Hipp and Jennifer France. Hipp made an
engaging and intriguing Fantasio, a melancholy dreamer with a strong
personality. Hipp’s song to the moon in Act One (sung in broad daylight)
was entrancing and set the scene, whilst France wonderfully combined the
Princess’ pin-sharp coloratura with a vein of melancholy at her impending
marriage. Hipp and France really made a connection in their wonderfully
romantic scene in Act Two, disguise and darkness meaning that each reveals
something of their private self to the other. The prison scene was
similarly touching, and the unresolved resolution at the end of the opera
made you long to know what happened to these characters.

Huw Montague Rendall managed to be delightfully engaging as the Prince of
Mantua, rather more ‘Tim nice but dim’ than Blackadder and
revealed a supple lyric baritone which deserves a more serious vehicle.
Timothy Robinson was alarmingly foppish as Marinoni, entering with a will
into the charades yet, when he stops pretending to be ‘The Prince’ reveals
his own vein of melancholy too.

Graeme Broadbent did his best with the King of Bavaria, who is very much a
cipher, whilst Bianca Andrew flexibly slipped in and out of the action as
the Princess’ page. The three students, Joel Williams, Joseph Padfield and
Benjamin Lewis made the best of their scenes but you felt that Offenbach’s
heart wasn’t quite in it and he had done this sort of thing better earlier
in his career.

The chorus entered into the piece with a will, and with no separate dance
troupe, they entertained us royally with Ewan Jones’ elaborately
choreographed choruses, bringing the work to life.

The work was sung of Jeremy Sams’ English version and the cast’s diction
was excellent, so we barely needed the surtitles. Whilst I can understand
the reasoning behind doing it in English, I did miss the sound of the sung
French language and feel that this would have brought an added layer to the
piece. Sams did not entirely avoid that major pitfall of translating
Offenbach into English, the proximity of G&S, and there were numbers
which would almost have fitted into a Savoy Opera. That some of Offenbach’s
melodies could be described as Sullivanesque indicates quite how much
influence Offenbach had on his younger English contemporary.

In the pit, Justin Doyle and the orchestra successfully created a sense of
Offenbach’s journey from Orpheus to Hoffmann.

This was a performance which both intrigued and engaged, making us realise
the complexity of Offenbach’s later works. The fine performances from the
central two characters ensured that the lyric melancholy of the piece was
finely served, surrounded by the more classic Offenbach operetta of the
lesser characters.

Robert Hugill

Offenbach: Fantasio

Fantasio – Hanna Hipp, Princess Elsbeth – Jennifer France, Prince of Mantua
– Huw Montague Rendall, Marinoni – Timothy Robinson, King of Bavaria –
Graeme Broadbent, Flamel – Bianca Andrea, Sparck – Benjamin Lewis, Hartmann
– Joseph Padfield, Facio – Joel Williams; Director – Martin Duncan,
Conductor – Justin Doyle, Designer – Francis O’Connor, Lighting Designer –
Howard Hudson, Movement Director – Ewan Jones, Garsington Opera Orchestra
& Chorus.

Garsington Opera, Wormsley; Sunday 16th June 2019.

product_title= Fantasio: Garsington Opera, Martin Duncan (director), Justin Doyle (conductor)
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above:Fantasio at Garsington Opera

Photo credit: Clive Barda