Offenbach - Fantasio

Opéra Comique at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Thursday February 16 2017

Conductor: Laurent Campellone. Production: Thomas Jolly. Sets: Thibaut Fack. Costumes: Sylvette Dequest. Lighting: Antoine Travert, Philipe Berthomé. Fantasio: Marianne Crebassa. Le roi de Bavière: Franck Leguérinel. La princesse Elsbeth: Marie-Eve Munger. Le prince de Mantoue: Jean-Sébastien Bou. Marinoni: Loïc Félix. Flamel: Alix Le Saux. Spark: Philippe Estèphe. Facio: Enguerrand de Hys. Max: Kevin Amiel. Hartmann: Flannan Obé. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Chœur Aedes.

Offenbach
Director Thomas Jolly is currently the French critics' coqueluche and can do no wrong. (If you look coqueluche up you'll find it means whooping-cough, but also, more or less, heath-throb, pin-up or idol.) His first opera was Eliogabalo at Garnier last September. I found myself in a small minority of curmudgeonly, Statler-and-Waldorf dissenters on that one. Fantasio is an improvement, but I still don't see what all the fuss is about.

True, this resurrected work is tricky. It's a hybrid piece, rather like Cenerentola. In this case it combines comic scenes (that don't equal the wild abandon of Offenbach's full-blown opéras-bouffe) and some of those thigh-slapping, beer-quaffing "student antics" the Romantic period was keen on, with a lot of what the French call poésie. Literally this means "poetry", but it's more a kind of Pierrot-like wistful tenderness or tender wistfulness to which I am pretty much insensible. So, quite a lot of beautifully-crafted, soupy, waltzy music reminiscent of drawing-room ballads. Quite a lot, because despite the thin plot, this is a long work to a wordy, over-literary libretto. Here I might mention that, acts one and two being played without an interval, the first part ran to 1 hour and 50 minutes: Wagnerian.

The staging was fairly conventional-looking overall, competently managed. It seemed to mix periods - now in itself quite conventional - with references to the industrial revolution and the advent of photography and electricity while chorus costumes had more a 30s look. The central, "fairy-story" characters had an assortment of "fairy-tale-standard" costumes: pastel silks and powdered wig for the prince of Mantua swapped with Marinoni's green-and-cream nutcracker soldier; white Disney cape and plain gold crown for the king; Cinderella dress for Elsbeth; grey bellboy suits and caps for the servants. And finally, a magnificent jester's outfit for Fantasio: yellow silk jacket and hat and harlequin-chequered trousers.

The main set was a black block on two levels joined by a flight of steps, at the top of which was a working camera shutter, opening to reveal silhouettes of the multi-turreted castle gate, an industrial cityscape, or the  deceased jester's graveyard. It was mostly very dark. The libretto says the city is smoky but "illuminated", so there was smoke, even snow at first, and lighting played an important part: garlands of dim, yellow fairy lights, stark white spotlight beams grouping and separating (as in Eliogabalo), and an incongruous neon arrow pointing down to the local pub. There was a lot of coming and going and bustling about by the chorus members, well-timed to fit the music. There were street sweepers. There were maidservants sewing Elsbeth's long wedding train and more, in blond bob wigs, handing along pearly pink balloons that eventually formed a heart at the top of the stairs (I think the balloons were the last straw for my neighbour).

The balcony, garden and prison the libretto called for were art nouveau metal enclosures wheeled on and off by stagehands, as were various other props: tables, benches and so on. A lot of movement, that some might call fidgety. One of my friends did. I made the mistake of reading some reviews before going, and was led to believe that Jolly's production would amaze us with Fantasio's parcours initiatique from darkness to light, ending with a coup de théâtre that was no less than a coup de génie. In the event, the factitiously gleeful young chorus simply turned their jackets inside out, revealing coloured linings, and danced up and down. A bit of a let-down...

Fabricating fun on stage is hard, and in this case the students' glee remained factitious and stubbornly unconvincing. Jean-Sébastien Bou put a great deal of vigour into his buffo role and looked very dashing in his aide-de-camp's sleek uniform. My neighbour, however, thought raising laughs by revealing Marinoni's polka-dot underpants was scandalously corny. Elsbeth was a bit of a wet blanket, fair enough for a lovelorn princess. But above all, for the story to work, Fantasio must be magnetic and charismatic, and Jolly failed, in my curmudgeonly, Statler-and-Waldorf view, to transform Marianne Crebassa into anything more than a gangly, shrugging French gamin. So in all I found the production average, competently managed as I said, not startlingly original, and a bit gloomy. My neighbour, who had not left at the interval because he'd been told there was an aria after it worth hearing, was more severe: sinister, "nul à chier" - total crap, approximately - and at 135 euros a pop, "du vol" - daylight robbery.

It was nice to have a good orchestra in the pit and the playing was perfect, but a bit too smooth and late-romantic to my taste, having got used to Minkowski and his band. Bou, as well as putting vigour into his role, put it, as usual, into his singing and boomed away for all he was worth. Marie-Eve Munger brought to mind Barbara Hendricks, in that she has a very pretty, agile voice used very sweetly indeed, but modest in size and in her case (unlike Hendricks') tending to thin out, rather than gleaming and thrilling, at the top. She seemed tired, perhaps even unwell, in the final act. Marianne Crebassa has a remarkably even, golden-bronze timbre throughout the range, a voice ideally suited to breeches roles - and I was reminded later that she has already recorded a recital of those, called Oh Boy! Hers is a voice that will, I think, become instantly recognizable, which is usually a good sign. Perhaps she should just take care to vary the colour more, so that that remarkable evenness doesn't end up, over time, sounding monochrome.

There's a trailer here. And Maestro Wenarto finishes off La Vie Parisienne here.

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