In choosing a work with which to mark Offenbach’s bicentenary, it was brave of Garsington Opera to look beyond the usual suspects – Orpheus in the Underworld, La belle Hélène – and alight instead on one of the composer’s apparent flops. Fantasio (1872) was Offenbach’s attempt to break into the world of the prestigious Paris Opéra-Comique, and the work is indeed more of a romantic comic opera than an operetta in his well-established farcical style. Written around the time of the Franco-Prussian War, it tells of a melancholic who worms his way into the household of the King of Bavaria by taking on the persona of the recently deceased court jester, persuades the king’s daughter that she doesn’t need to marry the Prince of Mantua just to help diplomacy and prevents war-war by arguing instead for jaw-jaw, a solution not previously considered. For these achievements, Fantasio is made a count and is given the key to the princess’s "secret garden"...

Hanna Hipp (Fantasio)
© Clive Barda

It was seemingly too subtle for the first Parisian audiences and was pulled from the Opéra-Comique’s repertoire after just ten performances. Already-scheduled productions in Vienna and elsewhere went ahead, but it fell from view – apart from one appearance in Germany in the 1920s – until the turn of the millennium, when in a piece of musicological detective work, the score was put back together from a multitude of scattered, incomplete sources. Mark Elder gave Fantasio its British concert premiere with Opera Rara forces in 2013 (duly recorded), but this Garsington first night was its UK stage debut.

Garsington Opera Chorus
© Clive Barda

In many ways, Fantasio points the way towards Offenbach’s fantastical, serious opera The Tales of Hoffmann – where, indeed, some of its music ended up – but director Martin Duncan seemed keener to impose a more farcical, operetta-like character on proceedings. Jeremy Sams’s fresh, un-self-regarding English translation helped with immediacy, and only occasionally brought G&S to mind (though with far more sophisticated music). But characters – and this was no fault of the singers themselves – were barely developed beyond two-dimensional caricature, further flattened by Francis O’Connor’s cartoonish costume designs. It also didn’t help that a piece that broadly charts a journey from darkness to light (Fantasio is initially fixated on the moon) began, thanks to Garsington’s open-to-the-light auditorium, in the dazzling sunshine of a rare bright June evening. Duncan’s direction fell between stools: shades of Blackadder and Spamalot, but lacking a Gallic lightness of touch and, crucially, romantic realism in characterisation.

Jennifer France (Princess Elsbeth)
© Clive Barda

Musically, though, the evening was a dream. Offenbach’s score is as full of memorable melodies, succulent harmonies and piquant orchestration as any of his more better-known pieces, and the Garsington Opera Orchestra under Justin Doyle revelled in every nuance. The vocal honours fall largely on the two female leads. Jennifer France, who was a dazzling Zerbinetta in last year’s Opera Holland Park Ariadne, seemed to channel that character’s stratospheric agility on to the coloratura of Princess Elsbeth; her attractive, open sound and crystal-clear diction provided an object lesson in communication. Mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp, in the trouser role of Fantasio himself, did her utmost to give her character a sense of the realism lacking in the direction, with plenty of warm bloom to her voice and wit in her use of the text. The score offers fewer opportunities for the male soloists to shine, though Huw Montague Rendall’s lyrically sung Prince, Timothy Robinson as his servant sidekick Marinoni and Joel Williams, Joseph Padfield and Benjamin Lewis as Fantasio’s student friends all made the most of what they had been given, and the terrific Garsington Opera Chorus acted as a kind of beneficial glue, binding everything and everyone together into a single musical ensemble.