Manolo Blahnik, who has taken up a well-heeled residence at the Wallace Collection in London, would feel right at home on the Garsington Opera stage this summer. That’s because its version of Offenbach’s Fantasio offers a powdering of Marie Antoinette (the Sofia Coppola version) with some flamboyant Commedia dell’Arte thrown in. And whilst poor old Offenbach didn’t have much luck with his Fantasio (it flopped back in 1872), Garsington has polished it up and delivered a successful first UK staging of the romantic comic opera.
The plot is a little kooky, so bear with me for a fanciful moment. Elsbeth of Bavaria is betrothed to the Prince of Mantua but she’s in mourning for her court jester, Saint-Jean, who is recently deceased. Enter Fantasio who tries to dissuade the apple of his eye into marrying the Prince (she’s not keen, so it’s not too difficult). He comes up with the rather odd idea of disguising himself as a jester in order to ingratiate himself with Elsbeth. It works.
Meanwhile, the Prince is desperate to know Elsbeth’s true feelings towards him. So, he decides to pose as his valet Marinoni in order to spy on her. But Fantasio, lurking in a tree above the royal party, exposes the Prince’s disguise by lifting his wig. It all goes pear-shaped, and the wedding is cancelled. Fantasio is locked up for insubordination, but wait for it: Elsbeth visits him in prison and breaks him out. All’s well that ends well when Fantasio is declared King of Fools and is given the keys to Elsbeth’s “garden.” Phew.
It’s a play within an opera, delivered in English with a superb translation by Jeremy Sams (I’m not normally a fan of translated opera, but this one works). Director Justin Doyle makes an excellent Garsington debut, and the imaginative rainbow-coloured set design is by Francis O’Connor. Stepping into the court jester’s trousers is mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp who delivers a charming and spirited Fantasio, although it takes a little time for her to relax into the acting. It’s all eyes on Jennifer France as Princess Elsbeth, dressed to impress as a pink bonbon with Antoinette-style pouf. Her vocal twirling is a joy to listen to – her wedding aria drew the biggest applause of the night. Baritone Huw Montague Rendall as the Mantuan Prince, and tenor Timothy Robinson as his sidekick Marinoni, provide plenty of comic relief.
If you’re thinking of introducing the kids to opera, this one fits the bill. It’s entertaining in a panto kind of way, the chorus, all trussed up in 50 shades of purple, packs a vocal punch, and it’s punctuated with dialogue, making it much easier to understand the daffy plot. It’s fun and frisky, and you’ll be kicking up your heels, Manolo style, with this high-octane production.
You can catch Fantasio at Garsington Opera until July 20. The box office occasionally receives last-minute returns during the opera season. If you are under the age of 35 and interested in learning about last-minute £30 ticket deals, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for alerts to availability.
I was invited to review Fantasio at Garsington Opera. As always, views are entirely my own.
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