To say that Fantasio was one of Offenbach’s more obscure operas would be putting it mildly. A failure at the Opéra-Comique in 1872, a modest success at the Theater an der Wien, it seems to have disappeared from circulation until a lot of detective work led to the publication of the edition by Jean-Christophe Keck used for this recording and an associated performance in London last December.
The origins of the opera lie in a play by Alfred de Musset dating from 1834, reworked by Alfred’s brother Paul for performance at the Comédie Française in 1866. The plot is distinctly odd. Elsbeth, daughter of the King of Bavaria, is due to be married for reasons of state to the Prince of Mantua. Elsbeth is mourning the death of Saint-Jean, the hunchbacked court jester. Fantasio, ‘un simple bourgeois de Munich’, adopts the jester’s costume and gait in order to ingratiate himself with the princess. Meanwhile the prince, anxious to ascertain her true feelings, has exchanged clothes with Marinoni, his aide-de-camp. When the court assembles, Fantasio, perched in a tree, removes Marinoni’s wig. The insult has the intended consequence of deferring the wedding. Elsbeth visits Fantasio in prison where, after some confusion, she returns his love and helps him escape. War threatens: Fantasio’s suggestion that the rulers fight it out between them is nervously rejected by the prince, who withdraws his suit. Fantasio gets his princess, and is proclaimed the King of Fools.
In his booklet-note, Keck avers that the opera ‘deserves to be called a masterpiece’. There are certainly some beautiful numbers, such as the duets for Elsbeth and Fantasio, and the orchestration is a joy: Fantasio’s Ballade in Act 1 highlights the woodwind instruments in turn, from flutes to bassoons, and Elsbeth’s Romance features the clarinet and horn, magically played by Antony Pay and Roger Montgomery. Occasionally there are welcome reminders of past glories: the waltz in the finale of Act 2 recalls ‘Un vil séducteur’ from La belle Hélène, for instance. But the soufflé fails to rise. After the fall of Napoleon III and the Second Empire there was nothing for Offenbach to satirise, and it shows.
There are no reservations about the performers, though. The cast, led by Sarah Connolly and Brenda Rae, is first-rate, and Sir Mark Elder provides faultless direction. The spoken dialogue was recorded elsewhere but there is no discernible change in the acoustic: excellent sound, in fact, save for an over-prominent piccolo. I daresay I’m missing something, so do give this enterprising issue a try.