Fantasio – review

Royal Festival Hall, London
The beauty and refined melancholy of Offenbach's flawed masterpiece shone through in Opera Rara's concert revival

Offenbach's Fantasio drew a blank with audiences at its Paris premiere in 1872. Its failure is frequently ascribed to bad timing. Based on a play by Alfred de Musset, whose work was unpopular at the time, it's set in Romantic Germany, which at best would have seemed incongruous in a France still smarting from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Offenbach, himself German-Jewish, was, more importantly, also becoming persona non grata at a time of growing nationalism and antisemitism.

But were immediate circumstances the sole reason for the work's failure? Opera Rara's concert revival, using Jean-Christophe Keck's critical edition, reveals a work that deals in refined shifts in mood from a composer primarily associated, now as then, with in-your-face directness. Fantasio is a moonstruck student who adopts the persona of a sad clown to woo the Princess Elsbeth, soon to be married against her will to the Prince of Mantua. Offenbach's unease at being pigeonholed as a popular entertainer informs the score, which is characterised by a refined melancholy, far removed from contemporary ideas of what might constitute a crowd pleaser. Flaws of structure – a long exposition and an awkward third-act finale – prevent it from being an outright masterpiece, for all its beauty.

Opera Rara have, however, done the piece proud, apart from occasional moments of tentativeness in the dialogue. Sarah Connolly's understated Fantasio was very much the refined dreamer, though the real vocal honours belonged to Brenda Rae's spectacularly sung Elsbeth and Russell Braun's Prince of Mantua, touchingly revealing the man's essential loneliness beneath his waspish facade.

Mark Elder conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with infinite sensitivity, as well as taking the cameo role of an ill-tempered shopkeeper – to everyone's surprise and delight.

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Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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