09 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach – FANTASIO (S. Connolly, B. Rae, R. Braun, R. Murray, B. Sherratt, V. Simmonds; Opera Rara ORC51)

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach - FANTASIO (Opera Rara ORC51)

JACQUES OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880): FantasioSarah Connolly (Fantasio), Brenda Rae (La princesse Elsbeth), Russell Braun (Le prince de Mantoue), Robert Murray (Marioni), Brindley Sherratt (Le roi de Bavière), Victoria Simmonds (Flamel), Neal Davies (Sparck), Gavan Ring (Hartmann), Aled Hall (Facio); Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, England, UK, in December 2013 (music) and St Jude’s Church, Hampstead Garden, London (dialogue); Opera Rara ORC51; 2 CD, 139:08; Available from Opera Rara, Amazon, harmonia mundi USA, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Jacques Offenbach at his least inspired was capable of writing riotously entertaining music. At his best, the best embodied by Les contes d’Hoffmann, he could create music of exceptional beauty and surprising profundity. Perhaps the most damning obstacle in his career was that the Parisian audiences for his works were not reliably capable of discerning the merely very good from the truly magnificent. How else can the poor reception that greeted the first production of Fantasio be explained? Despite the presence of Célestine Galli-Marié—the creator of Vendredi in Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoé in 1867 and Bizet’s Carmen in 1875—in the title rôle, Fantasio survived after its 1872 première at the Opéra-Comique for only nine more performances. The opera was produced elsewhere in Europe within a year of its Paris première, however, and a Hamburg radio production featuring Helmut Krebs and Valerie Bak was recorded for broadcast in 1957, albeit in a bowdlerized edition with rôle transpositions that was the only form in which Fantasio was then thought to survive. Continuing the work started with their advocacy of the neglected Robinson Crusoé and Vert-Vert, Opera Rara’s musical archeologists again come to Offenbach’s rescue with a studio recording of Fantasio that is a souvenir of a concert performance of the opera at Royal Festival Hall that was one of the not-to-be-missed musical events of 2013. Restoring the score to its original splendor, complete with music that fell victim to Offenbach’s incessant pursuit of offering his audiences works of taut dramatic construction, this recording preserves a real performance of Fantasio rather than a studio-bound recital of notes; but how could anyone fail to be swept along by such fantastic music?

Sir Mark Elder again proves himself to be one of Opera Rara’s foremost assets, and here he also reveals himself to be a phonogenic vocal actor. Always a prepared, energetic conductor, Maestro Elder reaffirms in this performance that he is a top choice for leading performances of Offenbach’s music. He not only knows how music like that in Fantasio ought to sound but, far more importantly, also understands how to capitalize on that knowledge. Many of today’s conductors seemingly approach Les contes d’Hoffmann with the goal of portraying Hoffmann, Antonia, and Miracle as though they are Siegfried, Brünnhilde, and Wotan on their nights off, replacing Offenbach’s subtle humor with pseudo-Wagnerian pomposity. Fantasio is not Hoffmann, but the musical links between the two scores are unmistakable. Maestro Elder realizes that, even in a Bavarian setting, Offenbach’s music exudes the aromas of champagne and punitions, not those of beer and Schweinshaxe. His conducting of Fantasio honors the learned musicality at the heart of the score without denying the effervescent atmosphere of the Salle Favart. Every number is paced with cognizance of the inner and outer structures of the music and respect for the singers’ needs. It is a performance that treads boldly on dramatically dangerous ground but does so wearing dancing shoes.

Expectedly, the playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is another source of strength. Fantasio does not make extravagant demands on the orchestra, having as many uncomplicated, formulaic accompaniments as are attributed to any of Verdi’s early operas, but the OAE players take nothing for granted, dedicating to Offenbach’s score the same concentration that they would lavish on the most difficult music in their repertoire. The string playing is especially refined, not least in the pair of Entr’actes in Act Three, the first a stirring piece that begins with almost Wagnerian brass figures and the second a dulcet, introverted number of intimate, chamber music-like proportions. The percussion is delightfully unrestrained in public scenes, and passages of Gallic delicacy from the brasses and woodwinds alternate with boisterous spirits. This is also true of the singing of the Opera Rara Chorus. Whether lamenting the death of the King of Bavaria’s court jester, Saint-Jean, seething with bellicose impetuosity, or extolling Fantasio’s resourcefulness, the choristers sing with crisp diction—a notable achievement of the cast as a whole, in fact—and perfectly-judged tone. Moreover, the choral singing contributes ebulliently in every scene in which it is heard, starting with the scene-setting ‘Vive le roi!’ at the beginning of the opera. The sympathetic but vaguely ironic tone of the Chœur de pénitents, ‘Ô Saint-Jean! ta joyeuse face,’ is given subtle treatment by the choristers, and their singing provides a strong foundation in ensembles.

A more enjoyable rabble-rouser than the Sparck of Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davies is inconceivable. This fine singer has participated in a number of acclaimed recordings, but he has never sounded better on disc than in this performance. He is on superb form, and his firm, focused singing of ‘Si l'on veut que l'on m'accroche’ and ‘Les fous ne meurent pas’ is feisty and congenially arrogant. Mr. Davies’s singing provides comedic and musical backbone to the performance, and he is charmingly abetted by the Hartmann of Irish baritone Gavan Ring and Facio of Welsh tenor Aled Hall. Both gentlemen bring their characters to life with panache and sing with good command of music and text. Some of the sharpest arrows in Offenbach’s satirical quiver were reserved for the authority figures in his works, whom he often depicted as bumbling, blissfully distracted idiots, but the King of Bavaria in Fantasio is spared the worst of the composer’s contempt. Owing to the brawny, occasionally slightly unsteady singing of Lancashire-born bass Brindley Sherratt, this King has a measure of legitimate authority despite seeming to inclined to orate than to actually take action. As Flamel, a page at the Bavarian court who fills the rôle of the Princess’s confidant, mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds sings attractively, her lovely voice heard to advantage in the congenial lines assigned to Flamel in ensembles, especially the scintillating quintet ‘Oui, c’est bien lui, chère princesse’ in Act Two.

The indecisive Prince of Mantua—the libidinal antithesis of Verdi’s Duca di Mantova—is brought to life with manly charisma by Canadian baritone Russell Braun. This Prince may not accomplish much in the course of Fantasio, but in Mr. Braun’s performance he at least sounds fantastic. In the Prince’s strophes in Act Two, ‘Je ne serai donc jamais, non jamais,’ Mr. Braun movingly evinces the Prince’s dejection upon realizing that his title makes being loved for himself difficult. Some singers might be inclined to mope in the expression of such sentiments, but Mr. Braun’s singing avoids saccharine over-emoting. He rises to the high notes of his part with less ease than in past, but he interacts humorously with the Prince’s aide-de-camp Marinoni, who is sung vibrantly by Essex-born tenor Robert Murray. The duet in which the Prince hatches and communicates with his partner in crime his plot to observe the Munich court via traded identities comme Don Ramiro and Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, ‘Je médite un projet d’importance,’ is handsomely sung by both gentlemen, and Mr. Murray’s account of Marinoni’s Act Three couplets, ‘Reprenez cet habit mon prince,’ in which his reluctance to return to his lowly duties as a barely-noticed aide-de-camp is touchingly expressed, is sparkling. Mr. Murray’s lean, heady tones combine ideally with Mr. Braun’s darker, earthier timbre, and they form a winning partnership as put-upon servant and exasperated master.

Wisconsin native Brenda Rae is an aptly regal presence as the Princess Elsbeth. Richard Strauss famously requested a teenager with the voice of Isolde for his Salomé: the combination of her music and the line ‘Puisque j’ai seize ans à mon âge on doit voir la vie en rose’ (‘At the age of sixteen, one ought to view life with rosy hues’)—amusingly foreshadowing Liesl’s ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ in The Sound of Music—suggests that Offenbach wanted a sixteen-year-old with the voice of Lucia di Lammermoor. Ms. Rae may not be sixteen, but a Lucia di Lammermoor she is—a very fine one, in fact. Her bel canto technique serves her well in Offenbach’s music, and the proficiency and precision of her top Ds and E♭s, upon which Elsbeth’s vocal lines make few demands even with interpolations, qualify her for the high tessitura to which she is subjected in ensembles. Ms. Rae sings Elsbeth’s recitative and romance in Act One, ‘Voilà toute la ville en fête’ and ‘Hélas! je tremble, hésitante, inquiète,’ with poise and absolute security, but it is in her Act Two air, ‘Ah! dans son cœur qui donc peut lire,’ reminiscent of ‘Je veux vivre,’ Juliette’s waltz aria in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Olympia’s ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ in Les contes d’Hoffmann, that Ms. Rae’s voice rockets into the heavens most ravishingly. Elsbeth’s romance ‘Psyché pauvre imprudente’ also inspires Ms. Rae to singing of impressive fluidity, and the honesty with which she portrays the Princess’s overcoming of initial hesitation in Elsbeth’s duets with Fantasio is endearing. Throughout the performance, she creates a character whose confusion, disappointment, apprehension, and yearning are palpable, and she manages to portray a Princess whose friendship with her father’s court jester seems credible. She inspires sympathy for Elsbeth’s suffering, resulting both from the loss of her closest friend and the obstacles to her romantic fulfillment, all while singing Offenbach’s music zestfully.

An evident truth that has emerged in the past decade is that, when putting on performances of a score that includes a prominent rôle for mezzo-soprano, whether that score is by Monteverdi, Mozart, Massenet, or Mahler, a sure-fire way of guaranteeing success is engaging Sarah Connolly. Offenbach’s Fantasio is an ideal rôle for Ms. Connolly, and she impersonates him accordingly. In the Act One Ballade à la lune, ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune,’ also offered as an appendix in its original, fuller version, Ms. Connolly sings magically, her cinnamon-hued timbre seeming to shimmer with moonlight. Intoxicating murmurs are indeed the prevailing element of Fantasio’s duet with Elsbeth, ‘Quel murmure charmant,’ sung with erotically-charged simplicity by Ms. Connolly and Ms. Rae, and the couplets in Act Two, ‘C’est le nouveau bouffon de roi,’ receive similarly pointed performances from both singers. In the subsequent duets with Elsbeth, ‘Je n’ai donc rien de plus’ and ‘Il n’est qu’un refrain à chanter,’ Ms. Connolly sings powerfully and attractively. She never coarsens her tone in efforts to sound masculine, and she traverses her part’s range without strain. This Fantasio is too clever to ever be fully convincing as a fool, but Ms. Connolly exhibits understanding of the fact that the key to effective comedy is sincerity, not buffoonery. Fantasio’s music is supplemented by the inclusion—also as an appendix—of a number cut from the score by Offenbach, ‘Pleure, le ciel te voit,’ and this, too, Ms. Connolly sings beautifully. The composer’s first choice for the rôle of Fantasio was the tenor Victor Capoul, one of the Opéra-Comique’s most popular singers and the first Valentin in Offenbach’s Vert-Vert, and the lion’s share of the few revivals of Fantasio in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries have entrusted the title rôle to tenors. So unique was the range of the first Fantasio, Galli-Marié, that, like her countrywoman Cornélie Falcon, her name became synonymous with a particular Fach of high mezzo-soprano singers. Ms. Connolly’s singing is similarly unique, and she is rightly the heart of this performance of Fantasio.

It is regrettable that, even with Les conte d’Hoffmann in the repertories of most of the world’s most important opera houses, Offenbach has not fully escaped from the stigma of a reputation as a purveyor of frothy entertainments with little substance. The esteem in which the composer held Fantasio is obvious from his use of thematic material from the score in Les contes d’Hoffmann. That Fantasio is a sublime work in its own right is confirmed by this recording. Through the years, the inquisitive spirits that guide the endeavors of Opera Rara have displayed unerring instincts for uniting neglected scores with casts capable of revealing their finest qualities, and this recording of Fantasio is one of the best products of those instincts. With a studio recording of Donizetti’s seldom-heard Les martyrs featuring Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres, as well as accounts of Donizetti’s unfinished Le duc d’Albe, Gounod’s La colombe, and Leoncavallo’s Zazà, on the horizon, Opera Rara’s success, brilliantly perpetuated by Fantasio, is certain to continue blossoming sensationally in the lush garden of rediscovered music.