This was the first time I have seen an Offenbach opera and, in fact, the first time I have seen Opera Zuid. Now, I must confess to having preconception about Fantasio. Opera is often looked on as elitist and within that elitism there is even more snobbery – Wagner fans, for example will often deride Puccini as being a tunesmith – so, Offenbach and his opéra bouffe, hmmm. Well, my operatic tastes are catholic and I like Wagner and Puccini, but I must confess my open mind was a little clouded by prejudice about a Parisian comic opera.
I was assured that it was a rare treat to see seldom performed Fantasio and a real treat it turned out to be. I was more than pleasantly surprised and from the start of the overture it was clear that this was not going to be what I expected.
The opera is set in Munich and as the opening bars played and the curtain rose we were confronted by a mist-filled stage, an almost Wagnerian tableau not unlike a Casper David Friedrich painting with spikey mountain peaks – the Alps are visible from the centre of Munich on a clear day – and from that moment it was obvious that this production was going to involve a good deal more than just singing and nice tunes. It was a rich, heady mix of great music and singing, fabulous costumes and visuals and lots of really good, and funny, comedy.
The plot is a little convoluted but essentially revolves around the death of the much loved court jester and our hero, Fantasio, assuming the mantle of his replacement in order to win the hand of the fair Princess Elsbeth of Bavaria who is the subject of an arranged marriage to the Prince of Mantua.
Without the music the libretto of Fantasio is virtually Shakespeare with romance, mistaken/altered identity, jesters and fools, a prince from Mantua etc. etc. With the music, and certainly in this production, it was almost an English pantomime, complete with a female principal boy, a dame – or at least a prince that was presented as one, a pompous king and even a Buttons. In fact, the two or three front-cloth scenes were pure English panto with Roger Smeets as the Prince/dame á la Grayson Perry and Thomas Morris as his trusty aide Marinoni. Mr Morris was actually dressed as a stereotypical Buttons and these scenes provided some of the best moments in the show, brilliantly conceived and executed with nods to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Morecambe & Wise.
Visually, the whole thing was a wonderful spectacle, thanks to the inclusion in the project of FashionClash, Club Guy & Roni’s Poetic Disaster Club, décor by Lola Kirchner and choreography by Dunja Jocic. The costumes especially were exceptionally good, as was all the movement. The overall direction by Benjamin Prins (who did an Alfred Hitchcock by appearing as a passer-by) was exciting and original. Some scenes were jaw-droppingly excellent possibly the best being when the somnabulic Princess is comforted by her nurse (more Shakespeare!), as ladies of the court drift across the stage in a dream-like slow motion amidst swirling mist and lots of billowing fabrics.
The singing could easily have been up-staged by the over-the-top production but the fine voices of Romie Estèves as Fantasio and Anna Emelianova as Princess Elsbeth more than held their own. The Philharmonie Zuidnederland, under the baton of Klaas-Jan de Groot, was excellent throughout. The acting too was all exceptional and as nearly half the words were spoken (in French) rather than sung, this was just as well. So, this was a really first class show and I am very pleased to have discovered Opera Zuid and Jacques Offenbach.
One final thought. We were in the best seats in the Zuiderstrandtheater in The Hague which cost €36. That included a proper glossy programme, a tea or coffee before the show and a glass of wine in the interval. For a show of this quality and scale, with an on-stage and in-the-pit company of getting on for a hundred, that strikes me as exceedingly good value and a fraction of the cost of visiting one of the major, even provincial, opera houses. As I said at the beginning, opera is often considered elitist and out of reach but Opera Zuid, certainly with this production, belies that assumption. Michael Hasted 14th June 2019
Opera Zuid’s Fantasio continues until 30th June.