Perhaps naively, I tend to trust the judgment of posterity. When people talk of “lost” or “newly rediscovered” masterpieces, I am sceptical. This applies especially to works for the stage; time seems to be a good sifter of wheat from chaff when it comes to dramatic viability. If someone complains that the same old warhorses are always being performed, I might retort that the old warhorses have nerves and muscles of steel.
An outfit called Opera Rara has, for the past 40 years or so, been dedicated to proving old cynics like me wrong. Don White and Patric Schmid were convinced that some of the neglected works of the 19th century were too good to remain unperformed. They began by creating a library of scores, libretti, costume illustrations and set designs, which continues to give the essential underpinning of authenticity to their work. Despite the untimely deaths of its founders, Opera Rara – now under the artistic directorship of the conductor Sir Mark Elder – continues to unearth forgotten works, often by composers such as Donizetti, Rossini and Meyerbeer. It dusts them down, and gets them performed and recorded by top-class singers and orchestras. The soprano Renée Fleming made her first opera recording with Opera Rara.
With their latest rediscovery, I think they have struck gold. Fantasio, a melancholy romantic comedy (not a satirical opéra bouffe, the genre for which he is best known) by Jacques Offenbach, based on a play by Alfred de Musset, has had a chequered performing history. The composer was devastated when it was taken off after only 10 performances at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1872. In the same year the opera was also seen at the Theater an der Wien and in Graz and Prague; the following year it was produced in Berlin. Not bad, you might say. But after that Fantasio had to wait more than 50 years for another production (Magdeburg, 1927). In 2000 it was seen in Rennes, France, in a new performing edition created by Jean-Christophe Keck.
Fantasio is a nocturnal story of disguises with more than a hint of Cyrano de Bergerac. A marriage is being arranged between the Princess of Bavaria and the Prince of Mantua. A student, Fantasio dresses up as a jester, gains access to the Princess’s quarters and sows doubts in her mind about whether she can fall in love with a stranger. (Fantasio, originally conceived as a tenor part, ended up as a “trouser role” sung by a mezzo.) Meanwhile, the Prince, who like almost everyone in the opera seems unsure of his identity, gets his servant (dressed as the Prince) to test out the Princess’s feelings. You may be able to guess the rest, and in any case atmosphere – moonlit squares and gardens of Munich – and enchantment may be more important than logic. As Elder put it, the plot “is confusing, but then life is confusing.”
The multiplicity of disguises and confusions of identity are not just flummery, both with this opera and with Offenbach, it seemed to me as I listened in on rehearsals leading up to this Sunday’s UK premiere of Fantasio; a concert performance at London’s Southbank Centre. Offenbach, I’ve felt for some time, is one of the 19th century’s most underrated and misunderstood composers. Born the son of a Jewish cantor in Cologne, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at 14 but had to counter both anti-German and anti-Semitic prejudice throughout his life. No wonder he retreated into disguise – into the frivolous mask of the opéra bouffe he more or less created, but which always concealed veins of bitterness and melancholy. Was he French, German, Prussian, Jewish, all of the above? Was her a serious composer, a jester, or both?
A clue about Fantasio is its dedication to the critic Eduard Hanslick, famous as the champion of Brahms and opponent of the “music of the future” represented by the later Wagner and Liszt. You would not dedicate a piece to such a severe critic unless you were confident of its quality.
For Opera Rara and its Fantasio performers under Elder, it comes down to style. I think style is also the reason why I used to underrate Offenbach. For many, he may conjure visions of the French cancan or the ballet Gaîté Parisienne, both concocted long after his death and unfaithful to his spirit. Too many Offenbach productions are raucous and camped-up; this offends against true Offenbach style, which, as Elder puts it, is “not vulgar, coarse or crude.” This applies especially to Fantasio, with its refined melodies and subtle orchestration, restored in the new edition by Jean-Christophe Keck and heard through the clear, delicate prism of the original instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. I can’t wait for the performance this weekend; next stop, the Royal Opera House?
More columns at ft.com/eyres