Offenbach’s Fantasio in Karlsruhe

Offenbach wrote over a hundred works for the stage and understandably many of them have not been deemed worthy of a revival in modern times. Fantasio is not often performed and, on the basis of the current production at Karlsruhe, that is strange. For it contains not only the usual attractive mixture of arias and ensembles, written with a deftness that belies their musical quality, but also some dramatic themes which, as revealed in Bernd Mottl’s astute staging, have resonance for us today.

The basic plot is corny – a princess required to marry a silly foreign prince to secure peace between warring nations but falling in love with a student – yet around it we have students contemptuously ridiculing the local bourgeoisie and their unthinking allegiance to monarchy and traditional values and the Shakespearian device of truth and reality being revealed by a court jester. Mottl brought out these themes without using a heavy hand and his work was enhanced by the Bavarian toy town setting of Friedrich Eggert and the colourful costumes of Alfred Mayerhofer.

Stefanie Schaefer as the student Fantasio was vocally too restrained and cut too pale a figure on the stage, but she did bring off well one key moment of the evening when, in removing the jester’s costume to reveal her true identity, she disclosed her bra, thus suggesting to her lover and to the audience that conventional ideas on gender and sexuality can also be questioned. Ina Schlingensiepen sang assuredly as the Princess and the rest of the cast gave a good account of themselves. The conductor Stefan Neubert and his orchestra could have brought a lighter touch to the score.