The tears of a clown have often fallen on fertile operatic ground. Think of Rigoletto and I Pagliacci; or The Yeomen of the Guard, where mock-Tudor merriment turns to ash in the mouth of the jester Jack Point. But what if the composer himself is the buffoon? Jacques Offenbach was the court jester of France’s Second Empire, and if he’s still (inaccurately) regarded as an essentially frivolous talent, well, let’s be blunt: his 100-plus stage works do include sentient vegetables, scenes of mass flatulence and at least one opera in which the title role is taken by a performing dog. Sympathy was in limited supply when, after the Franco-Prussian war, Offenbach suddenly came over all puppy-eyed and misunderstood in Fantasio (1872): a wistful, oddly unbalanced tale of a jester with the statutory broken heart.
There he is, though, moping behind the primary-coloured fun of this UK première production by Martin Duncan, and occasionally revealing himself through Jeremy Sams’s English translation. ‘Effectively I’ve disappeared’ muses Fantasio, a student who has adopted the motley of a conveniently dead court clown, the better to approach the prim but soft-hearted Princess Elsbeth — herself doomed to a dynastic marriage with the dim-bulb Prince of Mantua. ‘Does the role of a jester sometimes confuse you?’ he pleads, incredulous, as his fooling misfires and he’s thrown into gaol. I thought for a moment that Duncan was about to spin the show into a satire on our current era of synthetic outrage and offence archaeology. Offenbach would have gone there — at least the younger, more cocksure genius who wrote Orphée aux Enfers and La Vie parisienne.
But Fantasio and his princess are dreamers in a colder and more humourless world. True, Offenbach still has sufficient cheek to crown the central love duet with a saucy waltz, and his ensembles — brightly choreographed here — sparkle and skip. Yet the undertow is melancholy, and it felt like Duncan’s perky direction, and Francis O’Connor’s cartoonish designs (picture a Wacky Warehouse rendered by Giorgio de Chirico), were addressing themselves to the earlier, more flippant Offenbach. In short, the production felt slightly too silly for the (admittedly quite silly) piece.
OK, that’s harsh. Any decent director can stage a convincing Verdi tragedy; mixing the right amount of lemon into one of Offenbach’s comic meringues is a lot trickier. And no question, this was delightful entertainment, with nicely sung knockabout from Huw Montague Rendall (the Prince) and Timothy Robinson (his valet), and two central performances of terrific charisma and charm. Hanna Hipp was tender and ardent in the trouser role of Fantasio, with a lovely, dreamy way of floating a phrase. Jennifer France, who last summer was doing dangerous things to audiences’ blood pressure as a burlesque queen Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, was almost unrecognisable as a Barbie doll-pink Princess. There’s no mistaking the brilliance and agility of that voice, though, or the way she makes it flush with confiding warmth before swirling it dizzyingly above her head, bright and sweet as spun sugar. Garsington’s own orchestra was conducted by Justin Doyle, bringing a lively sense of style to a score that we’re unlikely to hear again any time soon, more’s the pity.
Still, who’d have predicted even ten years ago that we’d see two different but equally credible productions of Porgy and Bess in the space of 12 months? Gershwin stipulated an all-black cast and the conventional wisdom used to be (and you do wonder how often it was adequately questioned) that this made it difficult to produce. If that was ever true, it clearly isn’t insuperable now: the main cast of Grange Park Opera’s new production has relatively little overlap with ENO’s staging last autumn, and the singing and acting was barely less impressive. Musa Ngqungwana and Laquita Mitchell made a touchingly sincere central couple; Donovan Singletary slid cold steel into his voice as Crown and Sarah-Jane Lewis’s Serena rolled out her prayers with majestic intensity. Jean-Pierre van der Spuy’s direction generated a feeling of community without getting remotely as deep or as dark as James Robinson did at ENO.
Here too, though, elements of the staging felt at odds with the nature of the piece. There were synchronised Broadway-style dance routines, lurid washes of orange and blue light, and big melodies were picked out of the score, as if spotlit, by the conductor Stephen Barlow. Grange Park regulars will notice that this great and harrowing opera has been dropped into the slot in their season previously occupied by Oliver! and Oklahoma! — masterpieces that are not, however, operas, and don’t work the way that operas do. Imagine a showstopping production number in the middle of Wozzeck or Billy Budd. Does it still need to be said? Porgy and Bess is not a musical. Directors, please: if you wouldn’t do it in Katya Kabanova, don’t do it in Porgy.
Fantasio, Garsington Opera, in rep until 20 July
Porgy and Bess, Grange Park Opera, in rep until 7 July