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Fantasio review at Garsington Opera – ‘colourful production of a rediscovered Offenbach opera’

Hanna Hipp, Flora Macdonald and Benjamin Lewis in Fantasio at Garsington Opera. Photo: John Snelling
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Garsington’s third new production for 2019 brings the UK stage premiere of an opera first performed in Paris in 1872, but only very rarely since. Fantasio has a complex history and owes its reconstruction and rebirth to the Offenbach scholar Jean-Christophe Keck.

Based on a characteristically ambiguous play by the Romantic writer Alfred de Musset, it grew out of a traumatic era of the composer’s life, the Franco-Prussian War. Perhaps not coincidentally, its premise is an imminent royal wedding between scions of rival states. While essentially a comic opera, it is gently amusing rather than a farcical romp.

Musically, it points the way to Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The most striking numbers involve Princess Elsbeth, sung with brilliance and charm by Jennifer France. Yet her persona – candyfloss-wigged and brittle – embodies the mismatch between the opera’s streak of melancholy and the panto tendencies of Martin Duncan’s production. It looks gorgeous in its way, especially the De Chirico-inspired set, but sentiment is stifled by the riot of colour, the wacky costumes, the semaphoring, and, in Garsington’s spacious auditorium, the often stilted delivery of the dialogue (in Jeremy Sams’ English translation).

The title role – an unworldly young man, who poses as a court jester – is written for mezzo-soprano, here the rich-voiced Hanna Hipp. Huw Montague Rendall’s stylish, plush-toned Prince of Mantua finds a crisp comic foil in Timothy Robinson’s Marinoni and Benjamin Lewis makes a dynamic impact as Sparck.

Justin Doyle’s conducting does admirable justice to the score’s subtleties, though doubtless he and the orchestra will come to relish its dance rhythms with greater abandon over the run of performances.

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Comic spectacle overwhelms the ambiguities inherent in Offenbach’s rediscovered opera